February 6, 1960 – Ethel Nelson died in a Oakland nursing home after a long illness. Born in Mendocino in 1883, she was the daughter of Elizabeth May (Bessie) Carlson and Captain Henry Nelson. Ethel’s grandfather was John Carlson, who arrived in Mendocino in 1852 on the brig Ontario which brought the first sawmill machinery to Mendocino.

Family portrait of an older woman and her adult children

Bessie Carlson Nelson (center) with her children, Henry Norman Nelson (left) and Ethel Nelson (right), c. 1936.

Ethel’s father was a Norwegian sailor, who made his first trip to Mendocino in 1869. By the time of his marriage to Bessie in 1882, Henry was the captain of the schooner W. S. Phelps, which sailed between Mendocino and San Francisco. The Nelson family lived in Mendocino until 1890, when Henry took command of the ship Columbia and they moved to San Francisco.

Ethel never married, instead pursuing a career in Pharmacy. In a 1958 Oakland Tribune article, she recalled, “I used to go to sea with my father, and I guess it’s in my blood. It was on a ten-month trip to Australia with him that I decided to become a pharmacist. It was an unusual field for a girl, but then, it was unusual for a girl to go to work at all in those days. But my father said to me, ‘If worst comes to worst, you can always go out in the country and open a little drugstore!’” Ethel graduated from the University of California Pharmacy School in 1904.

After graduation, she worked in private pharmacies in San Francisco and West Alameda before becoming the first pharmacist at Samuel Merritt Hospital of Oakland. There, Ethel was on 24-hour duty and lived in a room next to her dispensary. In 1911, California passed an eight-hour women’s work law, prohibiting companies from employing women for more than 8 hours per day or 48 hours per week. Ethel supported the hospital’s appeal of the law as it applied to nurses and pharmacists. “Miss Nelson has appealed to the Supreme Court to set aside the state law as unconstitutional, on the ground of discrimination in favor of men. The nurses hold that their profession, being filled with necessities for emergency calls, cannot be regulated by time unless illness can. Should the Supreme Court decide that the law is constitutional, hospitals must put on more nurses and pharmacists, or employ men to take their places, there being no limit on a man’s hours of duty.”

Though the hospital lost the appeal, Ethel continued to work for women’s equality. She co-founded the Women’s Pharmaceutical Association of the Pacific Coast, which at the time of her retirement in 1953 was the oldest professional club for women in the United States. At her retirement party, the association honored her for 27 years as chief pharmacist for Highland, Alameda County Hospital and Clinics, and presented her with a lei of flowers flown in from the Hawaiian Islands for the occasion. In her later years, Ethel frequently returned to visit her childhood home of Mendocino and rekindled her girlhood love of the sea.

New Museum Hours! Now open on Monday! The Kelley House Museum is now open Thursday – Monday, 11am – 3pm. The Museum is located at 45007 Albion Street in Mendocino. Call 707-937-5791, email info@kelleyhousemuseum.org or visit the Kelley House website for more information.