Almost every doctor juggles too many duties, but few have balanced the practice of medicine with a passion for social justice as deftly as Mildred Hanson, an ob-gyn and, for three decades, medical director for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.
“She balanced her two priorities, which were making sure that her patients had the care they [needed], and making sure politicians knew exactly where she stood,” said Tim Stanley, senior director of public affairs for the organization.
Hanson, often described as the “grandmother of reproductive justice” in Minnesota, died March 4 of sudden cardiac arrest.
At 91, Hanson was one of the few remaining doctors who could remember practicing in a time before abortions became legal with the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. Her daughter Marilee Hanson, also a practicing ob-gyn, said her mother was shaped by that era. One of her relatives died of an illegal septic abortion, and she saw many women suffer from blood infections caused by botched back-alley procedures.
Initially, “Millie’’ Hanson set out to be a general surgeon, until a program director at the University of Minnesota turned her down flat. “He said, ‘Millie, there’s never been a woman go through our program — and you’re not going to be the first,’ ” Marilee said.
Hanson changed the angle, but not the velocity, of her course and set her sights on ob-gyn, graduating with honors from the U Medical School in 1952.
A divorced mother of four, she filled the traditional role of father at home — working late and supporting the family — while fighting for women’s rights.
“We knew that her work was extremely important,’’ Marilee said. “If there was a lady in labor, dinner was going to be late.”
Some of her regular patients came from families for whom she had delivered multiple generations, and others reached the age of 80 without ever having had another doctor.
Zoe Kusinitz, a former staffer at the Hanson clinic, said Hanson’s attention to her patients extended well beyond medical care.
“[She] genuinely cared about how their sister’s daughter’s wedding went — she remembered those things,” Kusinitz said. “She saw you as a whole person.”
At the same time, Hanson became a fearless advocate on the highly controversial subject of abortion.
“The thing I repeatedly saw was her willing to be a voice,” said Dan Buck, an organizer for NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota. “She was larger than life when it came to being vocal and adamant that women needed access to a full range of reproductive health services.”
But Mildred Hanson was also a woman with a full personal life, said her daughter Marilee.
She took trips to Japan and the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica and Iceland, and made a beautiful gazpacho using cucumbers, cilantro and tomatoes from her garden. When guests came from out of town they always woke up to thick slabs of oven-baked French toast and peaches, Marilee Hanson said.
At times, she said, it was difficult to share someone who had her finger on the pulse of so many.
“If she was sitting and talking to you, you felt like at that moment you were the only person in the world,” Marilee Hanson said. “She was a woman who belonged to a lot of people.”
Hanson is survived by her children, Melanie, William, Robert and Marilee Hanson; grandchildren, Joseph, Mats and Anders; and siblings, Doris Utgard, Goldie Meyer, Peggy Prinz and Johnny Schaffer.
A private service was held Monday.
Marion Renault is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.