Former Lawrence pediatrician Helen Gilles remembered as pioneer for women in medicine

In this file photo from Jan. 13, 2013, Lisa Boley, right, talks with her former pediatrician, Dr. Helen Gilles, during a reception honoring Gilles at the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, 1263 North 1100 Road. Gilles, a longtime Lawrence pediatrician, recently died at age 95.

Dr. Helen Gilles, a pioneer for women in the medical field in the state of Kansas, died on Thursday in St. Paul, Minn. She was 95.

During her 35 years as a private pediatric practitioner, Gilles became a familiar face for multiple generations of Lawrencians.

Her son, Tim Gilles, said she would constantly run into former patients while running errands and would stop to catch up with each one.

“A quick trip to the Hillcrest shopping center would turn into an hourlong adventure,” he said. “Everybody knew her.”

Gilles was born Helen Elaine Martin on the family farm near Paola and graduated from the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1945. She followed her husband, Paul, whom she married the Christmas before graduation, to California, where he finished his doctorate, and she completed her residency at Berkeley Children’s Hospital.

The couple returned to Lawrence in 1948. Gilles joined Dr. Mary Boyden in opening a medical office near Eighth and Vermont streets.

“They were the Lawrence lady doctors,” Tim said. “The two of them were the only pediatricians in town.”

In a 1983 Lawrence Journal-World story, Gilles talked about the struggle she faced as a female doctor in the 1950s. She said she was often unaware of prejudice against women entering the medical field, but did feel a societal pressure toward choosing between work and home life.

“Just after I started practicing, the ’50s emphasis on family togetherness and mothers staying home … They could put a great guilt burden on women who worked. But I guess I rationalized it. I had strong feelings that society had helped me through medical school and I owed something to society to practice medicine,” Gilles said at the time.

Gilles worked hard to balance work and family, remaining a part-time physician until Tim entered high school. Gilles was the den leader for Tim’s Cub scout troop and the Girl Scout troop leader for her two daughters, Rebecca and Kathleen. Tim said his mother became a role model for the girls in her troop, with two growing up to become physicians.

The practice would eventually expand after moving to the Medical Arts Building, 346 Maine St., adding new doctors Vernon Branson and Charles “Chuck” Loveland. After retiring, Gilles was replaced by Dr. Terrance Riordan.

Gilles’ retirement was a transition to practicing medicine less, but she still worked steadily for the next decade. Gilles continued to work part-time as a backup physician at Haskell Indian Health Center and the Kickapoo Indian Health Center in Horton.

“She was always very interested in Native American culture,” Tim said. “So as a retiree, she wanted to help serve that community.”

In the Lawrence community, Gilles and her husband also helped found the Unitarian Fellowship, now known as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lawrence, 1263 North 1100 Road. She was a Lawrence School Board member from 1969 to 1977 and also served on the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts.

KU’s Emily Taylor Center for Women and Gender Equity inducted Gilles into the KU Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971. She was recognized as an honored member of the University Women’s Club in 2003.

Gilles is survived by her son, Tim; two daughters, Rebecca Richardson and Kathleen Gilles Seidel; nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.