On Monday, 11 August, 2003, two months before her 95th birthday, Elisabeth Pletscher died from complications after a tragic traffic accident. I vividly remember my youngest son, returning from a festival in the city last year, telling us of an impressive old lady among the participants who gave a speech and then celebrated with the group of teenagers. “She was really super, everybody was very attentive and listened closely”. When we asked him who this lady was, he replied that her name was Mrs. Pletscher.
This positive meeting with 18-year-olds was eminently typical of the effect Mrs. Pletscher had on people. She took everybody at face value and made no distinction between young and old, rich and poor, famous or nameless. She invariably called a spade a spade, without exaggeration or understatement. She was very much ahead of times and possessed a large portion of patience. She never tried to have her way à tout prix. Instead she said that certain things needed longer to ripen and she always attempted to let them have the necessary time.At the age of five Mrs. Pletscher lost her father. Since her grandmother was also a widow at 55 years, she spent her childhood in a purely female household ; this most certainly left traces for life. She was the second female of all time to graduate from the Kantonsschule and wished to study medi-cine, but in male-dominated Appenzell she didn’t qualify for a scholarship. Some months later she happened to read in a local woman’s bulletin about the forthcoming opening of a new school for medical technicians and doc-tor’s aides in Bern. This note proved to be decisive for Mrs.Pletscher. Although the tuition fee of CHF 5,000 was prohibitive, she still signed up.
She had spent 10 months at the school in Bern when the University Women’s Clinic in Zürich asked for a student willing to supervise the laboratory immediately. The only condition was that the applicant knew logarithms. Mrs. Pletscher went to Zürich, her training interrupted, and thought she would return after one year ;she stayed for the next 43 years! At that time it was mandatory, and part of the salary structure, to live on-site, so to visit her family she took her bike on Saturday evenings, pedalled some 100 km to Trogen and started her return trip to Zurich on Sunday afternoon.
Quite soon Mrs. Pletscher realized the level of injustice women working in institutions of Public Health had to cope with, particularly in laboratories. Instead of becoming a militant protester she became one of the first members of the newly founded Association of Laboratory Technologists. Together with her colleagues, and her innate determination and engagement, she worked for recognition of the profession, and this was no small feat as the male world strongly believed that a woman’s place was subservient to a man. During the Second World War Mrs. Pletscher joined the Military Auxiliaries and was sent on a Red Cross mission to Italy in 1945. She was fluent in German, French, Italian, English, Dutch and Portuguese.
In the early fifties she travelled to the United States to learn from the local fight for Women’s Rights. Her many contacts with colleagues in various countries facilitated the organization of a large international congress and subsequently led to the creation of the International Association of Medical Laboratory Technologists (IAMLT; today IFBLS).
Mrs. Pletscher’s long years of untiring and diverse engagement served not only the profession but more generally the community, humanity and justice. Her influence was crucial for the decision to found and build the Pestalozzi Village for Children. She was one of the first and most significant advocates of women’s right to vote in Switzerland, first nationally but most decisively locally. She took her stand with persistence yet was never inflexible; perseverant yet never impatient and if necessary did it all on her own. In Switzerland the women’s right to vote was introduced on a national scale in 1971. Not so in the canton of Appenzell; year after year,( 1971, 1976, 1979 and 1984), the male population voted against it, until in 1989 women were finally granted this fundamental civil right.
Her attributes were that she was determined, persistent and strong-minded, with a sense of humour. She won the prize of the local foundation for culture and together with Clara Nef and Gertrude Kunz, was named by the then Head of Appenzell, “one of the great women who actively shaped an important part of the
Canton’s hitory by cultural and social engagement”. The bestowment of an Honorary Doctorate in Political Science by the University of St. Gallen was one of the last tributes paid to her. She was honoured “for exemplary engagement for equal rights for women in education, politics and profession as well as for her long-term commitment in relation to political, social and cultural duties of her native Canton”. ith the passing of Mrs. Pletscher we loose an exceptionally charismatic personality. She taught us perseverance, patience and farsightedness together with the wisdom to set our sights on clearly defined but flexible goals. Everyone who knew Mrs. Pletscher was fascinated by her personality and hopefully, she will remain radiant and infectious in our hearts.
Heinz Ryffel (labmed-commission for education and member of the editorial board)