D.C. Pediatrician Mabel Grosvenor, 101; Shared Fond Memories of Inventor Bell

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Mabel Grosvenor, 101, a Washington pediatrician who as the granddaughter of Alexander Graham Bell was probably the last person alive who knew him, died of respiratory failure Oct. 30 at her family's home in Baddeck, Nova Scotia.

Dr. Grosvenor, one of seven women in the Johns Hopkins Medical School Class of 1931, practiced medicine in Washington for 35 years and continued to live in the city after her 1966 retirement, although she was also responsible for running the estate in Nova Scotia, known as Beinn Bhreagh.

Her interest in treating children might have come from her grandfather, the inventor of the telephone, who financially backed pioneering educator Maria Montessori and put Helen Keller's family in touch with the man who introduced her to Anne Sullivan.

"People were always bringing children to Grampie," Dr. Grosvenor told her nephew, Edwin S. Grosvenor, for the 1997 biography, "Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Inventor of the Telephone." "[Bell] never turned anyone away with a deaf child. If they called on him or wrote that they had a deaf child whom they wanted him to see, he would always make time to see them."

She was quiet, unassuming and keenly interested in the future. She was once asked by a nurse what the greatest medical advance had been in her time as a physician. "Antibiotics," she said without hesitation, according to a Halifax newspaper.

Mabel Harlakenden Grosvenor was born in Baddeck on July 28, 1905. She was the daughter of Elsie Bell Grosvenor, the inventor's eldest child, and Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, the first president and longtime editor of National Geographic magazine. She was named for her grandmother Mabel Gardiner Bell, who had lost her hearing after a bout of scarlet fever.

As a child, Dr. Grosvenor would read to her grandfather, and in her teens, she would act as his secretary, taking dictation on his observations about genetics. She remembered being tutored by him as he devised simple experiments to teach children basic scientific principles, and insisted that all his grandchildren learn to spell "candy, please" before they could get a treat.

"I remember sitting at the table and doing the experiments with Grampie, making a needle float in water and turning a glass with burning paper in it over into water. And he showed us how sound carried better through the water than through air," she said in her nephew's book. "When we were swimming at the shore, he would go away from us and have us duck our heads under water. He would then clap stones under water and we could hear it. Then we would raise our heads out of the water and he'd clap stones in the air and you couldn't hear it."

The family lived near Dupont Circle until 1912, when her parents bought a 100-acre farm in Bethesda, near what is now the Grosvenor Metro station. The next year, 8-year-old Mabel joined her mother and grandmother in a major Washington march by suffragists demanding the vote for women.

She spent the winter of 1918-19 with her grandparents in Nova Scotia, sleeping on an outdoor porch at the 37-room mansion and bathing daily in cold water in an effort to "toughen me up," she told the Victoria Standard newspaper. She also traveled with her grandfather to Scotland in 1920 to research the family genealogy. Bell died Aug. 2, 1922, when Dr. Grosvenor was 17.

Although some say Bell hated the telephone, Dr. Grosvenor said it wasn't true -- he hated being interrupted by it. He "always answered the telephone 'Hoy, hoy.' He always said 'hoy-hoy' as long as I knew him. He was very vehement on how rude it was to say "hello" on the telephone. He thought it was very undignified," she said.

Dr. Grosvenor graduated from Mount Vernon Seminary and Mount Holyoke College before going to medical school. She never married but was considered the matriarch of an extended family of 59 nieces and nephews.

"Auntie Mabel . . . basically was the leader of the decision-making in the family, particularly in Baddeck," said Gil Grosvenor, National Geographic Society chairman. "Furthermore, she was the person all of us would consult. Until the day she died, we heeded her advice -- about children, about boats, even girlfriends."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company