This week in our blog hop about courage, I’m focusing on Dr. Leila Denmark.
Dr. Leila Denmark is a heroic person by my standards. Decades ago, when women didn’t have many career opportunities, she became a medical doctor. As a pediatrician, she was an advocate for children’s health and was admired and trusted by thousands of parents.
She passed away on April 1, 2012. She was 114 years old, and had practiced medicine for 73 years, until she was 103.
Born in Portal, Georgia in 1898, Leila Denmark was the third of 12 children. She attended Tift College in Forsyth, Georgia, where she trained to be a teacher, but decided to attend medical school when her fiancé, John E. Denmark (1899-1990), was posted to Java, Dutch Indies, by the United States Department of State and no wives were allowed. She was the only woman in the 1928 graduating class of the Medical College of Georgia, and married soon after graduation.
She accepted a residency at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia and moved to the Morningside-Lenox Park neighborhood with her husband. Dr. Denmark was the first physician on staff at Henrietta Egleston Hospital, a pediatric hospital on the Emory University campus, when it opened. Denmark is credited as co-developer of the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine in the 1920s and 1930s.
In private practice, she saw patients in a clinic at her home and devoted a substantial amount of her professional time to charity. She never refused a referral from the public health department.
Helping children get well and stay well was challenging in Atlanta's soot-stained air that darkened the sky during the Depression era. She treated some of Atlanta's poorest children as a volunteer at the Central Presbyterian Baby Clinic near the state capitol in Atlanta, said her daughter, Mary Hutcherson of Athens. Mill workers and other poor people who had no other way to get medical care would bring their sick children to the clinic.
After an epidemic of whooping cough killed many infants in 1932, she also became actively involved in medical research. She worked with researchers at Emory University to develop a successful pertussis vaccine and was awarded the Fisher Prize in 1935 in recognition for her work as a co-developer of the vaccine.
"The kids would come in and she would spend as much time as she needed with the parents to help fix that baby or that child," her grandson Steven Hutcherson said. "What she would do is figure out how to help them stay well."
Denmark loved her volunteer work at the clinic, just as she loved seeing patients in her home. Following her death, the dean of her medical school, Dr. Peter Buckley, honored her for her decades of service, stating: "Leila was the kind of physician we hope all of our graduates become -- a pioneer in their field, a caring and kind caretaker, and a consummate professional. She led by example, counseling us to be better parents, to raise healthier children and to set an example ourselves -- to ‘live right and eat right,' as she would say."
At the age of 87, she and her husband moved to Alpharetta, and Dr. Denmark kept her office in a 120-year-old log cabin in her home. She used the same exam table she started with in 1928.
In February of 1998 Dr. Denmark celebrated her 100th birthday. An article written at the time noted she was the oldest practicing physician in the United States. She put in 10 to 12 hour days four days a week, and charged $10 a consultation. She hiked, walked several miles each afternoon, and played 18 holes of golf.
In 2006, when asked about her secret for a long life, Dr. Denmark replied, "You keep on doing what you do best as long as you can. I enjoyed every minute of it for more than 70 years. If I could live it over again, I'd do exactly the same thing and marry the same man.”
Dr. Denmark had strong opinions, and argued that every mother should stay at home from the time her first child was born until the youngest was at least seven. She was known to be strict, straight forward, and blunt.
"Doing what you don’t like is work. Doing what you like is play. I have never worked a day in my life.” Dr. Leila Denmark was a courageous woman.