Dr. Janet Bell and Kathleen King

Remembering Dr. Janet Bell, a Pajaro Valley Pioneer in Pediatric Medicine

1922 – 2021

Contributed by Kathleen King

The Watsonville healthcare community and generations of Pajaro Valley families lost one of the original pillars of pediatric medicine, Dr. Janet Bell, at the age of 99.

Dr. Janet, as she was known by her patients, practiced medicine in Watsonville from 1951 until her retirement in 1989.  She was the first pediatric specialist to serve on the medical staff of Watsonville Community Hospital and only the second woman to be granted medical privileges at the hospital. Dr. Wells Shoemaker, pediatrician and colleague of Dr. Janet’s on staff at the hospital for many years, described her as “a pioneer, or one might say the Queen of Pediatrics.’  She was always open to embracing new ideas.”

It was her aunt who encouraged Dr. Janet to pursue a medical career and went so far as to recommend Janet become a doctor rather than a nurse because, as Dr. Janet recalled a few years ago, then she’d have more control over what happened to her patients.

Raised in Auburn, California, Dr. Janet entered Stanford Medical School in the 1940s where she was one of only three women in a class of 60 students, and where she met her future husband, Taine Bell, who became a general practitioner. After completing medical training they established their practice in Watsonville in 1951, where they joined “The Medical Group” with Dr. Eiskamp, Dr. Gilman II, Dr. Koepke, and Dr. Blaisdell.

Over the course of her 40 years in medicine, Dr. Janet witnessed tremendous medical “firsts”, including the introduction of vaccines, antibiotics, diagnostic and imaging testing, organ transplantation, and neonatology. But Dr. Janet, in addition to being the first pediatrician on the hospital medical staff, also had several other firsts. From 1975-77 she served as the first female Chief of the Medical Staff in the history of Watsonville Community Hospital (elected by her colleagues), and she is the only woman to have held that position to date. She was also the first woman to serve on the Hospital Board of Directors. And over her career, Dr. Janet also served on numerous medical staff committees, including Executive, Pediatrics, Bylaws, Credentials, and Ethics.

Beyond her leadership abilities within the medical community, Dr. Janet made the time to get involved in supporting school bonds for the construction of Amesti and Freedom Schools. She took an active role in organizing support that lead to the creation of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD), and then served on the school board for several terms.

Much of her time following retirement was as a caregiver to her husband, who suffered increasingly complex medical problems until his passing in 1996. Dr. Janet remained involved in community endeavors that have included the Watsonville Woman’s Club Foundation, the Community Coalition for Health Care, Court Appointed Special Advocates and Above The Line, a program for at-risk teens.

In 2001, the Community Health Trust of the Pajaro Valley awarded Dr. Janet the “Phil Rather Award for Leadership in Health Care,” a prestigious recognition created by the Community Health Trust to acknowledge the contributions of select individuals who have played a transformational role to improve the quality of health care for Pajaro Valley residents.

The reception to honor Dr. Janet in May of that year was packed with family, friends, retired and current physicians, nurses, and patients, both young and old, who turned out to honor her leadership and achievements on behalf of the community. Long-time local residents, Jean and Ed Kelly, who sponsored that event, summed up the sentiment held by so many of Dr. Janet’s admirers: Dr. Janet is the woman I most respect in Watsonville. She was our children’s pediatrician from the moment of birth, right up to their pre-college physicals. She even took care of me on occasion.  It is we who are honored to help sponsor this award in her name.” Similarly, Dr. Stan Hajduk, an Emergency Room Physician and member of the Community Health Trust Board of Directors at the time (now deceased), added his own accolades. “If I were to say that there are themes that have emerged from this short recitation of Janet’s life, those themes would include compassion, optimism, leadership, and above all, dedication to youth.

“We are very proud to count Dr. Janet among the earliest recipients of the Rather Award,” says current Executive Director of the Community Health Trust, DeAndre James. “Her life’s work – nurturing the health and well-being of the community – is what we stand for.”

Friends and colleagues who would like to pay tribute to Dr. Janet with a memorial gift may do so with a contribution to a charity of your choice, including the Community Health Trust. To make your tribute, simply click the “DONATE” button below, or mail a check to Community Health Trust of the Pajaro Valley, 85 Nielson Street, Watsonville, CA 95076.

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