A Woman Among Men: Dr. Freda Sattel

Freda SattelA quick glance at Johnstown, Pa., on a map, and one would most likely write it off as a small town in America with little stories of interest to tell; but Freda Sattel, OD ’43, who is a life-long resident, has a story of her own that is unique.

In a time when many young women were not encouraged to further their education beyond high school, Dr. Sattel had her eye on something greater for herself. Toying around with the idea of becoming a journalist, she consulted with her father, who was an optometrist. While supporting her interest in journalism, he offered this advice, “When you get a degree, it should be your life insurance.” He then carefully recommended that she look into becoming an optometrist, as Dr. Sattel was always top of her class in both math and science. Her father was always supportive of her ambitions, and it was he who can be credited with installing in her the idea that just because she was a woman didn’t mean she wasn’t able to accomplish great things.

“My father would always say, ‘There’s no reason why my daughter can’t do what anyone else can do,’” she said.

Fresh out of high school, Dr. Sattel entered the then Pennsylvania State College of Optometry (PSCO) in September 1939. Being one of seven “freshman” women, it could have been daunting to Dr. Sattel as she pursued her Doctor of Optometry degree among the majority of men; but it did not phase her in the least.

“In some of my classes I was the only girl, but I was never made to feel uncomfortable,” she recalled.

Outside of class, she resided in a designated female dormitory, which happened to be housed on the third floor of PSCO’s founder and president, Dr. Albert Fitch’s residence. While living there, they adhered to strict rules which included no food in the rooms, a 9:00 p.m. curfew, and of course: no dating boys from school. “Of course we disobeyed,” she laughed.

Albert Fitch Dormitory
Female Dormitory at Dr. Albert Fitch's Residence

When Dr. Sattel graduated in 1943, her diploma was issued stating “giving him the right to practice.” Again, not letting her gender deter her from following her dreams, she joined her father’s practice back in Johnstown. While learning the ropes at his practice, she also continued her education through seminars at Penn State University Park; University Park Campus, with Dr. A.K. Betts, a psychologist, and Dr. Ward Ewalt, a renowned optometrist in binocular vision which eventually led her to be accepted at the Gesell Institute of Child Development - a research, program development, and training center that brings together educators, parents and policymakers, because of her interest in vision therapy. She was the first woman in Gesell course.

Just three years after she joined his practice, Dr. Sattel’s father passed away. It was then that she faced some of her greatest challenges of being a woman in optometry as she took over. “I was female and I was young - I didn’t know how many families would stay at the practice after my father passed,” she said.

There were whispers from sales representatives stating they didn’t think she would be able to make it, but that only put wind in her sails, she said. Admittedly, the first three months after her father’s passing were tough, and she had to quickly figure out how not only how to retain the families to the practice, but also how to gain new patients by word-of-mouth. She quickly figured out she needed to treat her patients like family. It was because of the innate care she provided her patients as well as her “can do” attitude that she was able to overcome adversity to continue to successfully manage the practice. In fact, she was so successful, that in 1974 she built a new and bigger office which received a beautification award for being the most beautiful building in Johnstown of that year.  

Freda and others
L-R: Linda Wolfberg (wife of PCO President Melvin Wolfberg), Freda Sattel 
and two celebrity auctioneers

As a result of her determination, it should come to no surprise that Dr. Sattel has received many awards and recognition for her hard work in optometry. But the ones that have meant the most to her pertain to her profession: Outstanding Service to the Visually Impaired and Handicapped, from Cambria County Branch of the Association for the Blind in 1972; Tribute to Women Award, from Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Johnstown to the Woman of the Year in Optometry in 1992; Pennsylvania Optometrist of the Year, from the Pennsylvania Optometric Association in 1989 in which she was the first woman recipient; and Albert Fitch Memorial Alumnus of the Year Award, from PCO in 1990 - which she believes is the most meaningful award she has ever received. The Albert Fitch Memorial Alumnus of the Year Award is presented to an alumnus of PCO who has distinguished himself/herself through extraordinary service and contributions to the profession of optometry, bringing honor and prestige to the College.
 
Freda Sattel and Tom LewisAlongside her practice, Dr. Sattel was also selected by the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown to represent optometry by lecturing and allowing students to come and observe her in practice. As if that wasn’t enough, she also was a preceptor and a mentor for students from PCO which she found to be a gratifying experience.

Although Dr. Sattel never set out to make her journey in the early days of optometry about being a woman in the profession, it did on multiple occasions weave its way into her career and was helpful to distinguish herself in the field of optometry.

“As I retrace my steps, the decision to make optometry my career was certainly the right move, for which I thank my father,” she said.  Not only did she find that it gave her financial security and independence, but more importantly, it allowed her to be a part of a profession that she thoroughly enjoyed.