1:00pm

Fri April 6, 2012
Remembrances

Doctor Blazed Trails For Women In Medicine

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Dr. Leila Denmark led an exceptional life. She fought hard to become a doctor when women were largely shut out of the profession and helped research and test the whooping cough vaccine. She then opened her own practice and spent the next 71 years caring for child patients and their parents. Dr. Denmark died this week at the age of 114. That's right, 114.

Charles Edwards of member station WABE in Atlanta has this remembrance.

CHARLES EDWARDS, BYLINE: Dr. Denmark often cared for several generations of the same family, sometimes a total of five generations.

REBECCA PADEN: She's my doctor, she's my mother's doctor, my grandmother's doctor, my children's doctor and my granddaughter's.

EDWARDS: Rebecca Paden was one of dozens who came to a funeral home in Athens, Georgia this week to pay respects. Paden says Denmark took all the time in the world preparing new mothers for parenthood. She went over everything from why she thought pacifiers were bad and why she thought breast milk was the best milk.

PADEN: I can just imagine that it was probably an hour that she spent with my mother, maybe even more. She's certainly spent that much time with me in the past.

EDWARDS: Dr. Denmark treated thousands of kids, but only had one of her own. Mary Denmark Hutcherson says her mom was determined, stubborn even.

MARY DENMARK HUTCHERSON: If she had something in her sights, a project or something like that, she would never stop until it was finished.

EDWARDS: Leila Denmark applied to Emory University's Medical School in the 1920s when only men were enrolled as students. They told her to become a nurse. Instead, she convinced the medical college at the University of Georgia to let her attend in 1924. She was only the third woman to graduate from the school.

After medical school, Denmark went to work for pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, where she helped successfully research a whooping cough vaccine.

HUTCHERSON: I think she was a researcher at heart.

EDWARDS: Hutcherson says her mother started her own practice in 1930 out of a house her parents rented in Atlanta.

HUTCHERSON: She started seeing some patients in the breakfast room. And I think a friend from down home made her an examination table and she had her simple equipment and she started seeing babies.

EDWARDS: She saw and treated those children with the most basic of medical tools.

HUTCHERSON: Her main office equipment was a good pair of eyes and a brain that put things together.

EDWARDS: Over the years, Denmark moved around North Georgia, but she always saw patients in her home at all times of the day and night. One of Denmark's grandsons, Steve Hutcherson, says his grandmother never took credit card payments. He's not even sure she ever accepted insurance.

STEVE HUTCHERSON: It was cash, check or pay me later. And if you can't pay me now, pay me the next time through. She charged about $10 for an office visit.

DR. JAMES HUTCHERSON: She made absolutely no money at it, but loved doing it.

EDWARDS: And it was that love for taking care of kids that influenced James Hutcherson, Denmark's other grandson, to become a physician himself. James Hutcherson says his grandmother had a passion for helping mothers raise their children. Dr. Denmark often said, being a good parent is the most important job on earth.

For NPR News, I'm Charles Edwards in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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