Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Happy 171st Birthday, Agnes Elizabeth Perkes Calkin (1840-1916)!

Gayle Wells' great-great-grandmother

Agnes Calkin was an amazing woman: she was both a doctor who spoke Indian languages and a proper British lady.  She left behind marital enigmas: as a teenager she married a missionary as his plural wife, as a young mother she divorced another man.

Agnes was the middle of nine children raised in a prosperous English household. In delicate health growing up, Agnes lived with her doctor uncle from ages seven until fourteen, at which point she was called home to help her ill mother.  She learned nursing skills from her uncle that she used throughout her life. Her refined upbringing included frequent visits to museums, zoos, the circus, theater, shows, and professional portraits.

Agnes followed her family in baptism by a year.  Visiting American LDS missionaries boarded with the family for long periods of time, and teenage Agnes also served as a housekeeper in the mission headquarters, where she became acquainted with Elder Asa Calkin. Shortly after they had both suffered from smallpox, she married him as a plural wife. Agnes helped her new husband in the mission office and accompanied him on Church travels.  Together they spent six weeks in Germany, Denmark, France, and Sweden.  They sailed to Utah with their baby, listing on the ship’s manifest Agnes as Asa’s daughter and Amy as his granddaughter since first wife Mariette had also joined them for the journey and polygamy was frowned upon.

Crossing the plains, Mariette helped pregnant Agnes with little Amy, and the two women became close friends.  Salt Lake was a more difficult adjustment due to the tension caused by Asa’s stormy wife Lizzie.  Nevertheless, Agnes loved the theater, learning to square dance, and seeing friends from England. The family attended General Conference in October 1861 dressed in their finest clothes, and during the meeting were surprised to be among the families called to the Dixie Mission. 

En route south Agnes was known to call out to everyone as they prepared for bed in their wagons: “Good night and God bless each of us.” Despite the Dixie hardships, Agnes never permitted herself to become discouraged or regretful, and plunged right in to make a new home.  They first lived in the wagon bed.  When their coal fire occasionally went out, she would see whose chimney had smoke and dash over to borrow a light.  The Indians fascinated her; she cultivated their friendship and their herbal lore.  Agnes learned to speak the Indian language and was a translator and mediator between the two groups and they would come request “the doctor lady.”

Agnes began nursing victims of malaria, the beginning of quite a medical career.  After Asa died, she and her children moved in with her brother William in Salt Lake City, who noted that it took her a year to regain her health and looks after scraping by in that “second Mexico.” Brigham Young called Agnes to enter the University of Deseret and study obstetrics.  She received a degree as a doctor and delivered more than a thousand babies.  Brigham then called Agnes to return to St. George.  She was always dressed simply in dark clothes, ready to dash out at a call.  It was said that she could go from St. George to Santa Clara (about seven miles apart) in eighteen minutes by horse and buggy.  Small children were excited to see her little black bag, believing she carried new babies in it, and would approach in the hopes of hearing a cry from inside—some were quite grown before dismissing the theory that Dr. Thompson (as she was known after her remarriage) was the St. George stork. 

Agnes entered polygamy again as fellow English convert William Thompson’s third wife, but continued to live in the home Asa had built.  Her father was opposed to this marriage, which caused a rift in the family, but relationships with her sister-wives were better in this family than in Asa’s.  It is not known why she divorced William shortly after their third child was born.  Her familial relationships, both with parents, second spouse, and children, were a source of turmoil and tension in Agnes’ life.

            Agnes spent six months in Salt Lake nursing her mother before Charlotte’s death in 1891.  Agnes was especially close to her grandchildren, and showered them with affection.  She changed horses for longer journeys at the Tocquerville home of her daughter Katie Dodge, and they always looked forward to her visits. A granddaughter would sometimes accompany Agnes on medical rounds.  Agnes joked once in a letter how she wanted to go out to her grandchildren’s recital, but “If I go out I cough my head off, and that would not do for Grandmama to be without a head!”  A great sorrow in her later years was her daughter-in-law Flora Thompson’s death due to a miscarriage; the family unfairly blamed attending physician Agnes.

            She frequently traveled to Salt Lake for family visits, General Conference, and temple work.  Her own death followed a stroke, which happened when she was canning tomatoes and lifted a heavy full pan from the stove, which ruptured a blood vessel in her head. 

Agnes was remembered as a woman of sterling integrity, a tender mother and devoted friend, whose life’s labor was to relieve suffering and comfort the weak.  Her brother William once called her a saint, saying that Agnes was “good, patient, quiet, calm, self-denying, sympathetic, and charitable.  She is almost too good to live, but she says she is going to live to be a hundred years old.”  Although that didn’t happen, Agnes’ legacy has lived on; her name was given to great-granddaughter Agnes Hunter Jensen, and third-great-granddaughter Agnes Hiatt.  Her sewing machine can be seen in the St. George DUP Museum.

I would give her a car to travel more easily, and a gift card at Walgreen's--I bet she'd love to see all the pharmaceutical advancements since her day!

PS--and here's your new headstone too.


  1. She's also lacking a headstone in the St. George cemetery--anyone interested in that?

  2. I'd give her a nice, long vacation in Cancun. She could learn the history and take a well-earned break.

  3. These stories are so cool. I'm really enjoying your posts. Thanks Anita.