By: Tessa Payer, Museum Specialist at the Wayne Museum and Staff Member of the Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs
On this day in 2005, Dr. Jane Colfax passed away, leaving behind an immense legacy; both in her medical achievements and the preservation of her family home.
Jane Adelia Colfax was born on June 21st, 1923 to Richard Colfax and Elyse Schoonmaker. While Jane spent her early childhood living on East 32nd Street in Paterson, where her father worked as a lawyer, she likely looked forward to visits to the Schuyler-Colfax House in Wayne, which had descended through members of the Schuyler- and later Colfax- family since the 1690s. Here, young Jane and her brother, Richard Jr, reveled in the more rural setting and enjoyed the company of their grandmother, Adelia Colfax, and aunt, Jennie Colfax, who occupied the home following the death of Richard’s father, William W. Colfax, in 1909. Later in life, Jane would recall being entranced with her grandmother’s pet crow, which she’d taught to sit on her shoulder. Following grandmother Adelia’s death in 1933, however, Jane and her family moved to the Schuyler-Colfax House full time. Despite Jane’s travels throughout her life, the Schuyler-Colfax House would always be home to her.
As she moved into the home that had housed generations of Schuylers and Colfaxes, Jane found herself drawn to another family tradition- medicine. Her great-grandfather, William Washington Colfax, had been a doctor, and census records suggest that, at least in his young adulthood, Jane’s grandfather, another William W. Colfax, attended medical school. Surrounded by her great-grandfather’s medical papers, she decided, from a young age, to pursue medical work. She graduated from Pompton Lakes High School in June 1940, showing her career interests with a commencement speech entitled “Causes of Bad Mental Health,” and attended the University of Vermont for a year.
The United States’ entry into World War II in December 1941 provided Jane with another opportunity for medical training. With the increased demand for nurses by the US military, nursing schools were finding it difficult to provide eligible candidates and training. Thanks to the work of Congresswoman Frances P. Bolton, the US Cadet Nurse Corps was formed in July 1943. Placed under the purview of the Public Health Service, the CNC recruited women between the ages of 17 to 35, offering scholarships and a stipend for their nursing school education. As Liz Eberlein of the National Women’s History Museum explains, “in return, cadets were expected to complete their training in 30 months and to provide essential nursing services for the duration of the war, either in the military or civilian life." Jane was one of 124,000 women who enrolled and took the Cadet Nurses Pledge:
At this moment of my induction into the United States Cadet Nurse Corps of the United States Public Health Service, I am solemnly aware of the obligations I assume toward my
country and toward my chosen profession; I will follow faithfully the teachings of my instructors and the guidance of the physicians with whom I work; I will hold in trust the finest traditions of nursing and the spirit of the Corps; I will keep my body strong, my mind alert, and my heart steadfast; I will be kind, tolerant, and understanding; Above all, I will dedicate myself now and forever to the triumph of life over death; As a Cadet nurse, I pledge to my country my service in essential nursing for the duration of the war.
Jane appears to have started her nursing schooling in the fall of 1942 at the Flower and Fifth Avenue Hospitals School of Nursing, part of New York Medical College, in New York City. Interested in supporting the war effort, she, along with the rest of her 52-person class, enrolled in the CNC in October 1943. According to her later recollections, she would go on to spend seven months serving in an army hospital as a nurse; likely following her graduation in 1945. As for her time in nursing school, Jane’s surviving senior yearbook fills in some gaps. Photos and stories from her class’s three years record work in pediatrics and psychiatry, as well as long hours spent in the library or lab. (Figure 3) Jane was a dedicated student, and editor-in-chief of the yearbook. Her classmates seem to have taken notice of her work- the “Prophecy” segment of the yearbook, which envisioned the class in 1955, described Jane as “having just received her PhD.” Her senior quote reads “just, worthy and true; would there were more like you."
The yearbook’s prophetic glimpse into Jane’s future studies proved fairly accurate. In 1955, Jane graduated yet again- not with a PhD, but an M.D. Her studies took her from New York to Philadelphia, where she attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Originally founded in 1850, it was one of the first medical schools in the world where women could earn an M.D. With a long history of female leadership, education, and care for female patients, it was the perfect institution for Jane, who would be known later in life for her patient advocacy in the face of sexism.
Following her graduation in 1955 to her retirement in 1992, Jane- now adding another Dr. Colfax to the family tree- worked as an obstetrician-gynecologist. Initially, she worked at the Women’s Hospital, part of St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City (Figure 4) before returning to her home state to work at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson. She was St. Joseph’s first female OB-GYN and was dedicated both to her patients and to fellow female physicians, despite resistance from the hospital’s male doctors. Albert Pineda, who worked with Jane in Paterson, would recall, “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.” Her office manager, Barbara Backer, said of Jane’s patient advocacy, “Dr. Jane demanded the best for her patients, and they came first. In an atmosphere dominated by male physicians, nothing discouraged her efforts when she thought something was right and fair for her female patients. Patients loved and respected her." Besides her work in Paterson, Jane opened an office in Wayne at the Schuyler-Colfax House until 1966, then practiced at Hamburg Turnpike until 1992. In her career as an OB-GYN, it’s believed that Jane delivered around 2000 babies.
As Jane led the way for female physicians in Paterson, she also looked to the past and preserved her family’s history. Her husband, artist Michael DeNike, recalled her interest in
genealogy, stating “she could trace everybody back to George Washington’s time." Jane saved historic furnishings and artifacts from her family home, from 1850s quilts to pianos to Dr. William Colfax’s desk- and facilitated their donation to the Wayne Museum. When she and her husband renovated the Schuyler-Colfax House in the 1960s, they kept detailed notes on changes and family knowledge. Often interviewed by local newspapers about her family home, she offered photographs and tours; though she was quick to admit that “Washington never slept here. In 1993, when Jane retired, she and her husband transferred ownership of the Schuyler-Colfax House to Wayne Township, and it remains a part of the Wayne Museum today.
Dr. Jane Colfax died on June 15th, 2005 in North Carolina, a week away from her 82nd birthday. A member of a history-making Wayne family and a trailblazer in her own right, it was fitting that The Record stated that “Dr. Jane Colfax made history on her own."
The Wayne Museum operates under a shared services agreement between the Township of Wayne and the County of Passaic. The County manages and operates the Wayne Museum on the Township’s behalf through the County’s Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs.
“Richard S. Colfax, Paterson, Passaic County, NJ.” Ancestry.com. 1830 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002.
Colfax, Jane Adelia. Interview by Carol D’Alessandro. Phone Interview. March 20th, 2004.
“Richard S. Colfax, Wayne, Passaic County, NJ.” Ancestry.com. 1940 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
"William W. Colfax, MD, Wayne, Passaic County, NJ.” Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT. Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
“Graduates Are Only Speakers At Open-Air Commencement.” The Morning Call. June 20th, 1940. 14.
Eberlein, Liz. “Making a Difference: The U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps.” National Women’s History Museum. April 18th, 2019. Accessed December 9th, 2021. https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/making-difference-us-cadet-nurse-corps.
Flower and Fifth Avenue Hospitals School of Nursing, Flora Quinta (New York City, New York: 1945). From the Wayne Museum.
Melissa M. Mandell. “Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. 2016. https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/womans-medical-college-of-pennsylvania/.
Robert Ratish. “Pioneering doctor was immersed in history.” The Record. July 1st, 2005.
Barbara Backer. Interview by Carol D’Alessandro. Phone Interview. 2005.
Jane Adelia Colfax. Interview by Carol D’Alessandro. Phone Interview. September 17th, 2003.
Klacksmann, Bea. “Wayne Historic Homes Date from Revolutionary Days.” The Herald News. June 3rd, 1965.