Can a woman have it all? Ask the doctor

Carolyn Johnson Wesenberg

Ladies, can we have it all?

That’s the question that has challenged and goaded women ever since the first cracks began to mar the façade of ’50s-era domesticity. After five decades of unstinting struggle for public achievement coupled with private happiness, some exhausted women have begun to wonder if it’s possible to pack it all into one lifetime.

Maybe that’s because they haven’t met Dr. Carolyn Johnson Wesenberg.

Now 83, widowed, and living in retirement in the same St. Anthony Park house where she raised her children, Johnson may have missed out somewhere along the way on some small facet of the richness and variety of life, but if so, she can’t bring it to mind.

“I’ve had two lives my whole life,” she says, summing up a life that included children, a long and happy marriage, and a thriving medical practice that spanned more than 50 years. In public, she was Carolyn Johnson, M.D., one of four women to graduate in the University of Minnesota Medical School class of 1951. In private, she was Mrs. Wesenberg, wife of a distinguished educational psychologist, who loved to sing in the church choir and decorate her home with photos of her ever-expanding brood of kids and grandkids.

And it all began because she didn’t like to cook. “I couldn’t stand to be in the kitchen with my mother,” she recalls. “My dad said to my mother, ‘Elsie, she’s not going to cook.’ ”

Dad knew what he was talking about. A general surgeon in the Frogtown area, Carl E. Johnson taught his small daughter how to tie surgical knots at age 7 while she was convalescing from the chicken pox. Johnson says her childhood diary of the time contained an entry that read, “I’m dreaming about my future perfession. Like my dad.”

When she graduated from medical school at the University of Minnesota in the early 1950s, she was in a class made up largely of returning World War II vets. Not everyone was as supportive of her goals as her father. “It was one lady to every 30 men,” she says of her fellow students, “and the [male professors] weren’t kind to us.” With numbers like those, blending in with the crowd was never a possibility. “[The teachers] would go after us [women],” she recalls. “They got to know our names and we got battered [by their questions in class.]”

Johnson came from tough Swedish stock, however, and she stuck with it. Her male classmates were friendly, and they invited her to study back at their fraternity house, which in the Greek tradition was well-stocked with copies of previous years’ exams. “Eventually,” she says, “the professors accepted us women, too.”

When she graduated at age 24, Johnson joined her father’s practice. Shortly thereafter, in 1954, she married Clarence “Wes” Wesenberg, whom she’d known since “we occupied adjoining cribs at Redeemer Lutheran Church while our parents sang in the choir.” Their first child arrived two years later.

By this time, Johnson was officially working three afternoons a week at her father’s practice; but she never refused an obstetrics patient, and deliveries—then as now—stubbornly refused to restrict themselves to office hours.

Some of those confinements were her own. By the ’60s, Johnson was balancing a medical practice with the demands of a growing family. There were four pregnancies, and after the tragic death of a 5-year-old son from leukemia, the family was completed by the adoption of two more children. (One of her sons, Ned, grew up to become a St. Anthony Park fixture as the owner of Park Service.)

Wesenberg and her son Ned

Years later, Johnson was in high demand as a source of practical advice for female medical students who wanted to know how she managed. (“They always asked, ‘who carries out the trash?’” she recalls.) At the time, though, Johnson relied on a gift for improvisation and her natural energy. She employed neighbor women as housekeepers and, she says, “I had a marvelous helpmeet. My husband was doing double duty.”

Her medical practice was never routine. During the heyday of hippie communes, Johnson says, “I was the only doctor willing to go into those … houses on Marshall Avenue and the West Bank.” Alternative lifestyles meant alternative birthing styles—and then some! She recalls a family bedroom with children asleep nearby and the pet “Dobermans running around” while the mother gave birth. “One of the kids woke up and asked me who I was holding. ‘That’s your new baby sister.’”

Then the afterbirth arrived, and in a scene that surely none of her medical school professors could ever have imagined, Dr. Johnson stood up and threw the placenta back over her shoulder—bridal-bouquet style—to the waiting Dobermans.

Johnson says, “They were tough, those [hippie] women,” but their doctor was equally firm when necessary. “Maybe 15 or 20 times we had to go to the emergency room [because of birth complications].” When the women protested, Johnson would answer, “If you don’t come with me now, I’ll never walk into this house again.” They went, and Johnson is proud that she never lost a woman in childbirth.

After her father retired, she practiced medicine at various locations, including an 11-year stint sharing a practice with the recently retired Dr. David Gilbertson of St. Anthony Park. Although retired from active practice in 2005, she continues to serve on medical boards.

Looking back, Johnson says, “I never had any doubts. I never thought ‘How will I do this?’” Her biggest satisfaction? “Knowing that I did a good job.”

Judy Woodward is a reference librarian at Roseville Library and a frequent contributor to the Park Bugle.

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