Dr. Jane Colfax

Pioneering doctor was immersed in history

Friday, July 1, 2005


WAYNE - She was the last to live in the historic Schuyler Colfax house,which her family built in the late 17th century.

Her family tree included one of George Washington's bodyguards.

And in keeping with her historic lineage, Dr. Jane Colfax made history on her own, becoming the first female obstetrician-gynecologist to practice at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Paterson at a time when female physicians were rare.

Colfax died of a stroke on June 15 in Brevard, N.C., where she lived since retiring in the early 1990s. She was a week away from her 82nd birthday.

She was born in Paterson to a family rooted in Passaic County history. She was eight generations removed from Arent Schuyler, who around 1696 built the Schuyler Colfax house. She lived there until 1993. The township has since turned the home into a museum.

She was also related to Gen. William Colfax, who served in George Washington's Life Guard, an elite group that protected the head of the Continental Army.

Colfax liked to keep stories of her family private, said her husband, Michael DeNike.

She is not the last of the family line. She has nieces and nephews from a brother who died previously, DeNike said. But he said she may be among the last who had a detailed knowledge of family genealogy.

"She could trace everybody back to George Washington's time," DeNike said by phone from North Carolina. As a sculptor and writer, DeNike said he offered to write her family's story but she declined.

"She would not record it," he said. "She was private about her family. I offered to write a novel or two, but she said no."

Still, she made history in her own way, he said. After serving as an Army nurse during World War II, she attended Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania and became an OB-GYN when she graduated in 1955. Colfax worked for a hospital in New York before coming to St. Joseph's Medical Center in Paterson. She also worked out of her family's historic house.

DeNike said she met some resistance from male doctors at the time.

"But she overcame all their insults and jabs and jibes and became a defender of women's right to be doctors," he said.

Albert Pineda, a doctor who worked with Colfax at St. Joseph's, said she was the first female OB-GYN at the hospital.

"There were other female physicians but the percentage at that time was small," he said.

"She really took the resident physicians under her wing and taught them obstetrics. With the female physicians, I think she was sympathetic to their situation and was particularly close with them and guided them and consulted them," he said.

Colfax's nurse and office manager, Barbara Backer, called her dedicated to her profession.

"She was there 24-7 no matter what and if an emergency came up - bing! Off she went."

Backer, who lives in Pompton Lakes, estimated that Colfax delivered 2,000 babies. And some of those babies came back years later ready to deliver babies of their own.

"She always used to say, 'When I start to deliver their grandchildren, it's time for me to retire," Backer said.

During the late 1980s, Colfax contracted Lyme disease but it went undiagnosed for years, DeNike said.

"It was too late to cure it. With her it got worse and worse until she had to give up being a physician because she couldn't use her hands at all," he said.

Backer recalled Colfax's last day at the office in 1992.

"She and I were the last to leave. We turned the key together. I kept telling myself I'm not going to cry, but sure enough I did," she said.

Colfax and her husband retired to North Carolina, where her health continued to decline.

"She couldn't walk very well. She was bedridden for practically 12 years until she passed away," DeNike said.

The Schuyler Colfax House is closed for renovations, but the township historical commission memorialized her by hanging a black laurel wreath on the doorway to what used to be her office.


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