Carolyn Olsen Oral History


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Olsen, Carolyn (Interviewee)
McSwegan, Melissa (Author)
Carolyn Olsen, wife of Operations Officer Dennis Olsen, discusses life in India and in Liberia, during the Smallpox Eradication Program.



Olsen, Carolyn (Interviewee), “Carolyn Olsen Oral History,” The Global Health Chronicles, accessed March 27, 2017,

 Interview Transcript

Audio File: Carolyn Olsen Audio File
Transcribed: January 22, 2009

Interviewer:     This is an interview with Carolyn Olsen on July 11th two
      thousand and eight at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
      in Atlanta, Georgia about her role in the smallpox eradication
      campaign.  The interviewer is Melissa McSwegan.   With this interview
      we are hoping to capture for future generations the memories of
      participants and their families involved in eradicating smallpox.

      This is an incredibly important and historic achievement and we want
      to hear about your experience.  I have some questions to guide you but
      please feel free to recount any special stories or anecdotes that you
      remember about events or people.  The legal agreement you signed says
      that you are donating you're donating your oral history to the U.S.
      Federal government and it will be in the public domain.

      For the record could you please state your full name and that you know
      you are being recorded.

Interviewee:     My name is Carolyn Hardy Olsen and I know I am being

Interviewer:     Okay, great.  Thank you.  Okay, so would you please
      briefly describe your childhood and you education and so on and what
      led you into work or participating in public health campaigns?

Interviewee:     I grew up in Wyoming and after doing all my schooling in
      Cheyenne Wyoming I went to the University of Wyoming where I graduated
      as civil engineer.  And so I was working in Los Angeles when I met
      Dennis and shortly after we were married.  We went to Africa and we
      enjoyed our three years in Liberia then we came back and again I
      worked as an engineer.  And we were in Springfield Illinois when he
      went to (Bagapur) for three months and during that time I was working
      for the environmental protection agency and also getting my masters
      degree in environmental engineering.

      So, when he went to India I said I can't go right now I have to finish
      my masters degree.  So, he sold the house out from under me and so I
      house sat that summer while I finished my degree but he knew I was
      coming to India cause I didn't have any place to live.  And so I
      finished my masters degree and then I arrived in India and he met me
      in Delhi and it was pretty bad.  And so after two days he put me on a
      train and we went off to Lucknow and he said, "I didn't decorate the
      apartment because I thought you could do it.  And I sat there and all
      the wire was on the outside, the refrigerator was in the living room.
      It was really basic and I thought, "Oh my goodness."  And so he said,
      "I've got to work now," and when he came back he said, "I've got to go
      the field tomorrow," and he wanted to go so we went off for a ten day
      field trip and when you go on a field trip you stay in very
      interesting places.

      Probably the best items that we took to India were our sleeping bags
      cause we were staying - they call them dock bungalows and they were
      usually about fifteen cents for a place to stay and breakfast and it
      wasn't worth it.

Interviewer:     Oh, right.

Interviewee:     They were really very basic and if we had water we would -
      if we had hot water we were very lucky but usually we had water.  Then
      when we came back from that first trip Lucknow looked great then about
      a couple weeks later I used to have to fly or take the train into
      Delhi to get supplies.  And like Dennis said it was like going to
      Europe.  I mean Delhi looked first class after being in the field.

Interviewer:     Your perspective changed quite a bit during that time.

Interviewee:     Yes.

Interviewer:     How did you - you mentioned that you went on a - on field
      visits with your husband when he was working with the smallpox
      campaign.  Did you play any particular role during these trips?

Interviewee:     Well, many of the villages were very rural and so I would
      usually walk along and because many times by having a woman with him
      the women were more comfortable but also I found that it's very
      interesting.  Sometimes they have [inaudible 04.23] these different
      things in the village.  I'll tell you one of the most interesting days
      though, in India women always have their legs covered and usually
      their arms.  So I used to wear Levis and a kurta and I had very long
      blonde hair at that time and often wore it in a pigtail or pulled
      back.  And on one occasion we came to this village way out in the
      middle of nowhere and I was reading a book that was really interesting
      so I said I'm not going into the village, I'll just stay here in the

      And so all the children come and they looked at me then they all ran
      away.  And then all the ladies came and they got in a nice little line
      and usually people will go 'Namaste' but if you're very important it's
      'Namaskar'.  And the ladies were all giving me the 'Namaskar' and then
      they would chat away in  Hindi.  Well, the driver was just howling.  I
      mean he was over by the - just holding his sides.  The children had
      told the women that Indira Gandhi had come to the village so they were
      all telling me - and all the men were in the field because they were
      farmers and so probably in some village in India there is the
      [inaudible 05.41] of the day Indira Gandhi came to visit.

      But in general we would always go to the different health units and
      many times the Indian doctor was somebody who was either trained in
      Delhi or Bombay, now called Mumbai, and they were so glad to see
      somebody who spoke English.  I mean they would get out their wedding
      pictures.  These poor young ladies had arranged marriages and now
      they're in a village and they were used to living in a big city and so
      often times we had dinner with them.  I mean it was a very - they were
      very hospitable and we just had a very interesting time in our field
      visits.  Again we would go to many different health units during a day
      tracking down things and making sure their records were right.

      The sanitary facilities, again being an environmental engineer were
      not always that great and so you always had to watch your intake
      during the day.  And so everybody wanted to give you tea and I didn't
      know at first how to say no and then I found out that, again it was
      Rujinder Singh our - Dennis' PMA who told me, "Tell them you're
      fasting."  So I would say, "Oh thank you but I'm fasting today,"  and
      they would say, "Why?"  And I say, "Oh I'm fasting for the health of
      my husband and the success of the smallpox program," and they would
      think I was just this wonderful person and then two health units
      further I would have a cup of tea again.  But again you were in an
      environment that was very different than what most people especially
      during the hot months it was like a hundred and twenty degrees and you
      couldn't roll down the windows in the jeep because the wind coming

      And one day our driver took a shortcut so we got lost and we ended up
      stopping in a village where they went in, took the straw out and got
      us a piece of ice out of the ground which we put in a bucket and
      bought about twenty four Coca Cola.  And we would get towels wet, put
      them on our head and it was just a interesting day, I mean very trying
      on us.

Interviewer:     And did you have the opportunity to apply your engineering
      and engineering training while you were living there?

Interviewee:     Not really.  Again sometime there would be water questions
      and - but it really didn't lend itself to get involved.  I was able to
      do that more when I was in Liberia.  I taught sanitation workers how
      to do mapping and different things but again we were - actually we
      were moving quite a bit when we were in India.

Interviewer:     Describe a bit your relationship with the host country
      counterparts or the people you were interacting with on a day to day
      basis.   How did that work?

Interviewee:     Being a woman in India is different.  Our living
      arrangement was quite nice in that we lived upstairs in what they
      called (vasadi) of the Dases.  And Mrs. Das was actually the president
      of the girls school next door, Isabel Thornbird College which is a
      prestigious college for Lucknow.  And Mr. Das had been the police
      chief for the whole state and so we were included in that part.  So
      there I felt very comfortable being a woman but when we were in the
      field it was - or when you were alone you always felt like, especially
      young boys between like fifteen and twenty three, they were very
      aggressive and so you would always like to make sure that you were -
      and as a result the PMA and the driver and everybody were always very
      protective of me.  And being a professional person I was not used to
      having to have to kind of being protected.

      And then later on when we moved to Delhi it was a matter of having the
      taxi driver watch you while you went into the market.  And it wasn't
      that you felt security, I mean it was just that they wanted to touch
      your hair or something.  One time - oh, I had - I was having a strange
      pain and my fingers were starting to go numb and so I went to a doctor
      in Delhi and they said that I have Hobo's Disease.  It was my arm from
      riding in the jeep I would have my arm up and it was pinching a nerve.
       And he says, "I think we should X-ray you."  So I went in and the
      doctor came in and he started laughing because the paramedic had put
      my hair, my blonde hair so it was like a halo while I was laying
      there.  But in general you just go with the flow of things.  It was
      quite interesting.

Interviewer:     What were some of the biggest challenges to living in

Interviewee:     Food actually was kind of a challenge.  We were - when we
      were in the field we were usually vegetarians because you didn't know
      the last time somebody who may have come through and eaten meat so you
      didn't know how old the meat that was in the restaurant.  And we ate
      at the truck stops along the way and so we would always have to ask
      them to put the samosas back in or put new samosas into the hot oil so
      everything we ate was hot.  The embassy doctor used to just be amazed
      because we would not get ill but we didn't eat fresh vegetables unless
      we were home and they were peeled even if we went to a very nice hotel
      or a nice buffet and we had a lot of soup and a lot of things but also
      we had a cook.  He had a reputation.  He had worked for Dr. Francis
      and Dr. McGinnis and everybody knew that Iddu was just a wonderful
      cook and so Iddu was an old man, I mean now he is probably forty but
      he seemed like an old man to us at that time.

      And he became ill and they gave him streptomycin which caused inner
      ear damage and so he was having a hard time walking and so then I
      would pay for a rickshaw to bring him right up to the door and then I
      had him bring his daughter who had had smallpox so it was really quite
      appropriate.  She was blind in one eye and had pox - to help him so
      that he could his work.  And one day - she would marketing, he would
      do the cooking most of the time.  One day I am cooking, he is sitting
      there with his feet up, she is outside drinking tea and I'm thinking,
      "And I have servants,"  you know.  But during that same period of time
      Iddu got more sick and so about every six weeks or so we would have
      this regional meeting and all of the epidemiologists would come in and
      the international epidemiologists would come for lunch and then the
      Indian and the international ones would all come for dinner which
      would be about a hundred people.

      So, we would have usually about twelve to fifteen for lunch and I had
      Sabra who would help but Iddu was gone so it was up to me.  So I
      thought, "Well what," - so for lunch we had peanut butter and jelly
      sandwiches and Kool-Aid for the international group and then for the
      other people I did manage to find some things that were almost ready
      made, you add two vegetables and you became, you know.  And I thought
      okay this is adequate.  Well, the next month as we're going around to
      the different epidemiologists to see how things were going and
      everything, all the international ones says, "Boy I hope you have the
      same lunch next time we're here.  That was the best thing.  I go to
      bed at night dreaming of that peanut butter and jelly sandwich."  And
      then the Indian doctors, and Indian doctors actually had a harder time
      finding food because their wives had taken care of their food in their
      houses and rarely did they eat out.  And in India you have to sort
      your rice and you know all those different things.

      Well, a couple of them asked for my recipe for the different curries I
      had made that night and I didn't have the heart to tell them that I
      had gone to the store and bought a box of something that  I put in it.
       So I kept on like don't, [inaudible 15.21] the recipe you know, but I
      had an enjoyable time.  It was a challenge and you never quite knew
      what the day was going to bring.

Interviewer:     Were you able at some point to decorate your apartment?
      You had mentioned your apartment had all the wires on the outside and
      did it eventually become more...

Interviewee:     Well, it actually started looking pretty good.

Interviewer:     Okay.

Interviewee:     I mean, we had fluorescent lights and definitely - but
      during - well, electricity was not always available and so sometimes
      you would have company or somebody and all of a sudden all the power
      would go out.  And before the game Trivia Pursuit, we used to play a
      game that you would give the person the almanac and the flashlight and
      they would ask the other people questions.  So that was our
      entertainment on that but when we were in the field sometimes if you
      didn't have power we would go to the movie because the Hindi movies
      are four hours long, they usually have fans or if they are upscale
      they have air conditioning and they have their own generators.  So we
      used to go to a lot of Hindi movies when we were traveling and it was
      - like I said the heat was a challenge when you have a hundred and
      twenty degrees.

      Then the cold was a challenge because you had fifteen foot ceilings
      and no heat and so if you invited people over for dinner you would put
      the heater under the table and everybody would sit there in their
      coats and you would usually have soup or something hot.  But other
      than that I mean it was probably the most grueling experience I have.
      I mean if you look at going to school, going to college, going to
      India is just straight up.  I mean it's like they say you see the
      poorest, you see the richest.  You are the hottest, you are the
      coldest.  Everything is a dichotomy and the people there were just
      absolutely very hospitable and very, very nice.  They were you know
      again I would say kind of shy but some of the doctors that we met
      especially the Indian doctors that were in charge of different areas
      were very, very nice.  And this apartment that we had since they would
      come to visit us, they would see what we lived in so then they felt
      like they could invite us to their home so whenever we went to Delhi
      we would be invited to some of the doctors' houses.

      And probably one of the best invitations we ever had was Dr. Hakoli.
      While we were there they had the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad which happens
      I think every fifteen years and it's on the river banks of the River
      Ganges.  And on a busy day there's about probably ten to fifteen
      million people come and we were invited to come and stay in one of the
      tents for a minor bathing day so there was only about five million
      people there.  And so the Jumna, the Sangam and the Ganges all meet
      there and everybody goes to bathe and they have - they pray to the
      Sadhus.  And the first night we arrived there was this chanting so I
      asked Mrs. Hakoli, I said, "Do they pray all night?" cause it sounds
      like the Hare Krishna chant.  And she said, "Pray?"  And I said yes
      and she said, "Oh!  No they're listing hundreds of women who were lost
      today."  And it was a tradition that when you went back to your
      village you stopped at lost and found to see if anybody from your
      village had come and gotten lost to take them back.  And you would see
      these ladies with their saris tied together and some young son taking
      all their aunties to this festival.  So it was very, very interesting.

Interviewer:     What were some of the biggest differences between India in
      Liberia in comparing your two experiences?

Interviewee:     Well, I worked in Liberia so I was working as a school
      teacher there and teaching math and in India I felt like my role was
      more to support my husband and then there were a lot of social
      functions like when the international group came again we hosted at
      our house.  When we lived in Delhi and probably - well the type of
      people we met in India were very different even from the international
      side cause the Soviet Union was also - had provided quite a few
      epidemiologists and doctors for the program.  And so we not only had
      Russians but we also had people from Chezkslovakia and a lot of
      Eastern European countries.  And it was an education in social morays
      and also in how different countries looked at the Soviet Union and how
      when they socialized and when we socialized it was very different.
      Cause like if we were to go to a party it was put on by Dr. Codokevich
      or something as opposed to when we had a party we would look around
      and find out who else had a servant who would be the bartender and
      somebody else.  So we had all Indian staff working the party.

      When we went to a Soviet party it was people from the embassy.  I mean
      there were all kinds of ladies and other people that were Russian that
      were - you weren't uncomfortable but you knew it was very, very

Interviewer:     How did your time abroad particularly in India and Liberia
      with the smallpox program, how did that affect your career and your
      life afterwards?

Interviewee:     Well, on a I guess - India is such - I mean it's just
      there's so much energy and so much to do and so much to see that I
      just suddenly felt like I either had to write a book or do something
      and instead I started painting and in about six months I painted sixty
      some pictures all Indian.  And in India you can do anything so I had a
      one woman show and sold my paintings and it was really, it was quite
      interesting.  And one of the highlights was that Dr. Sensor actually
      purchased the first painting I ever painted which was of a train
      station and gave it to Dr. Fergie.  And so my claim to fame was that
      one of my paintings was in the Carter Center for a while but on a
      professional side it really brought home the need for clean water.
      And my profession as it moved forward I was commissioner of water and
      pollution control for the city of Atlanta and I was very involved in a
      lot of water and waste water activities.

      I also then became the president of a non profit which is called Water
      for People and it gives you a real empathy for how important clean
      water and drinking water is because when we were in the field in order
      to have clean water we used to carry - the old milk buckets there are
      kind of made of aluminum and about this tall.  And each night we would
      fill our jug up with water, put the immersion heater in, boil our
      water and put it in a - so we never had cold water but we had clean
      water.  And with all the disease and the different things you just
      realize that water is probably one of the most important parts of our

Interviewer:     Well, do you have any other stories or anecdotes that you
      would like to share with us?  Any memorable moments from your time

Interviewee:     Oh, I must say that one of the - when we moved to Delhi I
      didn't get to go in the field anymore so I became a professional
      traveler and as a result anybody going anywhere I would go.  And I was
      able to go up to an area close to the Nepali border which was called
      Tiger Haven where they would bring tiger - small tigers back from
      London and get them back into the wild.  And they would put you up in
      a cage and let you watch the animals which was very interesting.
      Another time I went with some missionaries and we took a train ride on
      a no class train and it was a twenty four hour ride down to New Bombay
       and I was with some Swedish people and it was very, very interesting
      cause we used to travel by train but we used to travel at least first
      class something which wasn't that great.  But this was - I think it
      cost me ten dollars to take a twenty four hour trip one return.  And
      on one train we were in a car and the rest was freight and all of a
      sudden there was a band and it came through playing and it then got
      off the train.  We come to find out they were on top and that's where
      - also that's where they would make tea and they would lean down over
      and sell you tea into the compartment but they riding up on top.

      And the last trip that I took that was very interesting was some
      people from the embassy were going to go from Delhi to Kabul,
      Afghanistan.  So we went through Pakistan and through the Khyber Pass
      and into Afghanistan.  And that was all in the seventies so that was
      before the Russians came and I just feel very sad when I see what has
      happened to  Afghanistan.  I don't know if you've read it or not but
      Kite Runner when it described at the beginning is the kind of
      Afghanistan that I had seen and I also had empathy for Afghanistan
      cause when I went to University of Wyoming, University of Afghanistan,
      University of Wyoming were sister colleges so I had met Afghans then
      also.  But other than being a world traveler I think that was pretty
      much a very positive experience and again I'm sure it changed my life.
       I mean it just gave me a whole different way of looking at the world
      and from a South East Asian standpoint but also with all the different
      cultures that we met through the program.

Interviewer:     Well, thank you for sharing your story.

Interviewee:     Okay.