Linnea Smith ’81, MD’84

Linnea Smith '81, MD'84

2008 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree

Linnea Smith developed an early affinity for living outside the city.

Smith enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the countryside near Milwaukee with her parents and her two sisters. The family moved to Kentucky during Smith’s high school years, but she missed Wisconsin and eventually returned to the Badger state to start her own business — an exotic plants store in Cross Plains.

After several years, Smith decided to pursue her undergraduate degree at UW-Madison and then continued on to medical school. Upon graduation, she built up an internal-medicine practice in Sauk City, Wisconsin.

It was after a vacation in the Amazon in 1990 that her life took a radical turn. She was called on to treat a lodge employee for a potentially lethal poisonous snake bite. This experience planted a seed. Inspired by a love for the rainforest and a desire to help remote Peruvians, Smith decided to leave behind her successful practice in Wisconsin and start a clinic for indigenous people who previously had to travel 50 miles by dugout canoe to reach a doctor. She initially operated out of a thatched hut that belonged to the ecotourism company that had hosted her vacation.

It was a risky move, not least because she didn’t know Spanish (she’s now fluent), and she had to practice medicine without benefit of electricity or running water. But seeing as the competition was minimal, she jokes, her practice grew quickly. She was able to save thousands of lives as patients traveled many miles seeking her help for ailments ranging from parasites and diarrhea to malaria and machete cuts.

Smith soon inspired many other people to volunteer their help. Tourists left donations and medical supplies, and eventually a Rotary club from Duluth, Minnesota, adopted her cause. Because she was on call around the clock, seven days a week, they agreed to fund a staff position, and she was able to train a Peruvian assistant.

Soon, other Rotary clubs joined in, and they traveled to the Amazon to build a simple clinic with solar panels that greatly enhanced Smith’s ability to provide medical care. They also built a thatched-roof house for her and one for patients’ families. The clinic now has enough staff that Smith is able to spend half of the year in the United States, working in emergency rooms to update her skills.

For seven years, Smith received no salary and had no medical insurance or retirement fund. Her close friends Dan and Judy Peterson, with help from Rick Koeck, a Sauk City lawyer, started a nonprofit foundation, The Amazon Medical Project, to support the clinic, and now Linnea receives a small salary. Though its annual budget is less than the cost of one transplant operation in the Unites States, the clinic offers a myriad of services, including prenatal care, delivering babies, and even dental care, since tooth decay is rampant in the area.

Sometimes, Smith joins teams of visiting doctors and nurses and travels to outlying villages to pull teeth and provide whatever medical care the people happen to need. The clinic now sees more than 2,600 patients a year and regularly hosts visits from U.S. physicians who volunteer their services.

Smith writes a regular letter to the clinic’s many supporters, and she eventually gathered these into a book called La Doctora, published in 1999, which chronicles the joys and challenges of life in one of the world’s last frontiers.

“La Doctora” is known for her lack of materialism and her cheerful, no-nonsense attitude, sense of humor, and love of adventure. Ever a free spirit, she enjoys riding her motorcycle in the hills of Wisconsin during her trips home — and repairing it herself when it breaks down. She’s been sewing most of her own clothes since she was in high school, and she even learned to fly a plane.

“She’s one of the most creatively independent people I’ve known,” says Dan Peterson. “She’s indefatigable. Things get in her way, and she just works through them or around them. … I don’t think there’s anything that she couldn’t do… she truly is one in a million.”

Smith’s Yanamono clinic is a featured stop for Wisconsin Alumni Association Amazon tours, and the doctor takes the time to meet with the travelers, acting as their personal tour guide. They in turn make a point of bringing medical supplies for the clinic and writing checks to support its work.

Smith plans to continue operating the clinic for another five to ten years. Even though she gets frustrated with the Peruvian bureaucracy at times, the things that first drew her there will make it hard to leave.

“I kind of like living on the edge,” she says. “I like things that are a challenge, and Peru is a challenge. One of the things that I miss when I’m in Wisconsin is the sounds of the rain forest — I love waking up and hearing the sounds of the birds and the bugs and the frogs, and sometimes a troop of monkeys in the palm trees behind my house, and the sound of the rain on a thatched roof. … After all these years, that magic is still there. I get to practice my profession … and I get to do it for people who really need it and in a place where I’m running around barefoot and listening to the saddleback tamarinds in the trees. … I’ve been able to do something that I find very satisfying and fulfilling, and it makes me feel good. What more do you want out of life?”

Dr. Smith’s work has earned her recognition as a fellow of the American College of Physicians in 1997, and the Wisconsin Medical Society chose her as the Wisconsin Physician Citizen of the Year in 2005.

According to Steve Cox, the executive director of International Expeditions, which organizes Amazon trips, Smith “is an inspiration to us, but to the people of the rivers and rainforests of Peru, she is both a life changer and a life saver. We are so proud of Linnea and the work that she does.”