Obituary: Mary Helen Pennington Christensen, pediatrician and psychiatrist

  • Article by: JENNIFER BJORHUS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2014 - 2:02 AM

Mary “Penny” Pennington

Back in 1943, Mary “Penny” Pennington was one of 10 women in her graduating medical school class of 120 students at the University of Minnesota. It was considered a big class of women.

She would go on to become a pediatrician and then one of the state’s early female psychiatrists, specializing in treating troubled young people.

She raised three children, and practiced in the Twin Cities until she retired in 1999 at age 79.

If it was ever difficult breaking that professional ground, she never let on, her children say.

“She was a real pioneer, but she was real modest about that,” said her daughter Ginny Christensen, an educational consultant in Pennsylvania. “She gave a clear message that your job was to do something that made the world a better place. She was hard at work doing that her whole life.”

Pennington, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, died peacefully at her Minnetonka home Jan. 20, surrounded by family. She was 93.

Pennington was born in 1920 in Minneota, in southwest Minnesota. Her father, a dentist, moved the family to Minneapolis when he decided to go back to school to become a doctor. Mary graduated from North High.

In an interview she gave for an oral history project on psychiatry in Minnesota, Pennington traced her love of medicine to her stints as a teen working in her father’s office when his secretary was off.

She rode the trolley car to and from the University of Minnesota. Once, when she had not finished her dissection in class, she carefully wrapped up her cadaver arm, pickled in formaldehyde, and took it home on the trolley to finish her work.

She and Llewellyn Christensen, another med student, married the day after they graduated from medical school.

Christensen was soon called to war and worked as a battalion surgeon in the Pacific, Pennington said in the oral history.

Pennington worked in pediatrics, then shifted into child and adolescent psychiatry. During the 1960s and ’70s she worked at Boyton Health Services, the student health center at the University of Minnesota, where she did a lot of group therapy. Then she went into private practice with the Minneapolis Clinic of Psychiatry and Neurology. She treated adults as well as young people.

“She connected a lot with emotionally disturbed kids and their families,” said Dr. Deane Manolis, a former colleague. “She was one of the first female child and adolescent psychiatrists in the state.”

“She was very effective,” he said.

Two of Pennington’s children, Scott and Ginny, recall their mother as a sharp intellect and compassionate person who was gentle, dressed elegantly and was devoted to her work. She loved dogs, fiction and family, and was a skilled bridge player.

They spent many summer weekends Up North at the family cabin on Bay Lake, Ginny said, where she went on walks in the woods hunting for trilliums, lady slippers and mushrooms.

In later life, Pennington lived on the south shore of Lake Harriet and could be seen sailing around the lake in her boat.

Pennington was active in the Minnesota Psychiatric Society and the Minnesota Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and was a founding member of the Minnesota Society for Adolescent Psychiatry. She also was a longtime member of the Minneapolis Woman’s Club.

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