I’ve been reading Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which I’m finding to be quite compelling. Millay’s was not an admirable life, but its themes are resonant — it’s the story of, among many other things, a talented woman trying to craft a new role for women and poetry in the early years of the 20th century. It’s also a story of ego, lust (for fame, sex, admiration), self-absorption, and addiction.
In my reading I had reached what are clearly Millay’s declining years when I ran across this sentence: “She was also in the care of the distinguished Dr. Connie Guion, who had come to Steepletop.” (At which I sat up with a yelp, causing Rick, who was quietly reading the Sunday paper, to wonder whether a bee had stung me.)
Yes, THAT Connie Guion. After serving on the faculty at Sweet Briar from 1910 – 13, which she did in part to help support the college education of her younger sisters, Guion went to medical school and graduated first in her class. She had a long and distinguished career in medicine; in 1946, for example, she became the first woman professor of clinical medicine. Among her many accomplishments were significant improvements in the hospital treatment available to poor and working class patients and creating a new curriculum for medical students at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Guion died in 1971, the year I graduated from high school. Hers clearly was an admirable life.
Several pages in Savage Beauty are dedicated to the story of Dr. Guion’s treatment of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Some of it raises interesting questions about Dr. Guion’s role in treating (or perhaps at some points enabling) Millay’s addiction to morphine. Milford also quotes from Dr. Guion’s notebooks on the topic of menopause, which Millay was experiencing at the time: Guion noted wryly that it is in fact “not necessary to get fat or depressed.” (p. 439) A profile in the National Library of Medicine notes that Connie Guion was known for her “common sense, perennial good humor and collection of outlandish hats.”
A portrait of Connie Guion hangs in the dining room at Sweet Briar House and for three years I’ve shown it to guests with pride. But I now know much more about her career than I previously did and I admire her more than ever. Although her time at Sweet Briar was short, we remember her for good reason; it’s entirely fitting that our science building carries her name.
May the students who work in Guion Hall daily be inspired by her ambition, dedication, care for the least advantaged, and good sense. . . .