Volume 12, Issue 5 ~ January 29-February 4, 2004

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Elizabeth Amanda Crisp, M.D. ~ 1922–2004
by M.L. Faunce

There’s a rite of passage in a young woman’s life rarely spoken of, let alone marked or celebrated. To each woman in her turn, the first visit to a gynecologist is a private, personal occasion marking the entrance to womanhood. It is an intimacy by which much is measured as we learn to take care of our ourselves, to be proud of our bodies, to prepare ourselves for motherhood or not.

Like most young women, I faced my first visit to a gynecologist with apprehension, even vulnerability, at age 20. Dr. Elizabeth Crisp was my first gynecologist. Because Dr. Crisp was also my sister’s ob-gyn, my worries were eased. Any that lingered dissolved once Dr. Crisp spoke with me, dispensing her caring counsel with a warm smile and the kindest blue eyes I ever saw. The term bedside manner was invented for doctors such as she.

The woman who changed medicine in the region loved fishing and nature, sunrises and sunsets, powerful cloud formations and the “very plane of the water outside her windows.”
I didn’t know Dr. Crisp intimately, though she knew me intimately, as she did my sister and thousands of other women to whom she dedicated her life’s work. She brought an inestimable number of babies into the world, and at a time when choices were fewer, she understood the need for women to have choices.

There was no question as to whose side she stood on as she posed this question after delivering my sister’s son, John. “Where’s this baby’s father,” she demanded, speaking of my tardy brother-in-law.

I also benefitted from her belief that medicine and health insurance should be about prevention as well as treatment.

For those reasons and more, I was stunned when I learned of Dr. Crisp’s death and that she had lived not two miles from me, even closer by water, since her retirement in 1987. Attending a memorial service at St. James Episcopal Parish in Lothian, I learned much more about Elizabeth Crisp from those who knew her well.
“Compassion, integrity, knowledge and skill — the four key elements of a medical doctor — and the most important of these, compassion.” Lifelong associate and friend Mary Furlow said these are words Dr. Crisp lived by, words that will be etched on her tombstone.

Deale Beach neighbor and friend Bob Nelson was also thinking about compassion when he said about Dr. Crisp, “she had a heart the size of Texas.” Texas was Dr. Crisp’s home state. She earned her medical degree from Louisiana School of Medicine and in the early 1950s served in the Navy Medical Corps.

In Washington, Dr. Crisp was an early pioneer in women’s medicine, founding the first all-female practice in the area, at one time the largest all-female ob-gyn practice in the United States. She mentored younger female physicians, giving them encouragement and support in a field dominated by men.

Kathleen Bis, just out of residency at George Washington Hospital in the early 1970s, was the first to be recruited by Crisp for Women’s Physicians, Inc.

“She recruited me as her first young turk, as she called the women who joined her practice,” said Bis. “She was not only the first ob/gyn in the entire area, she had the foresight to understand that women taking care of women was the way to go. She changed medicine in the Washington, D.C., area, becoming the first female chief of medical staff in the 100-year history of Columbia Hospital for Women.

“One of the best tributes I can think of,” added Bis, “is that everybody who had worked for Women’s Physicans was there at her memorial. People liked her as a person. She was very nurturing.”

Bis, an ob-gyn in private practice, noted that her mentor delivered babies up until her retirement.

Elizabeth Crisp moved to Deale in 1984, at first for weekends, then full-time after retirement in 1987. She loved fishing and nature, sunrises and sunsets, powerful cloud formations and the “very plane of the water outside her windows,” said Furlow.

At her memorial service, neighbor Nelson remembered not just the professional life in which Crisp excelled, but also “her joy of life and love of nature and the Bay. Elizabeth put up the first martin house, which other neighbors followed, and she put up a perch for osprey. She read Aristotle and Plato standing up, afraid she might otherwise fall asleep.”

Nelson remembered the vibrant Crisp with this poem:
I shall do everything — everything that reeks and smacks and smells of life, that paws at earth, snaps its jaws, gnaws a tail and falls asleep.
I shall do it all — call like hawks and crows and jays, whistle high, and circle wide, stoop and ride the wave as currents flow below and above.
And then, when I die, lie down in love.

Elizabeth Crisp died January 7 in the Deale Beach home she adored, that looked out on her garden and Chesapeake Bay. She was 81.

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Last updated January 29, 2004 @ 3:15am.