To Your Health

Thanks to the local medical society, Memphis medicine gets an up-to-date, comprehensive history.

Elvis Presley and a student nurse from Baptist College of Nursing — circa late 1950s

photograph used by permission — Baptist Memorial Healthcare archives

The locality and unsanitary condition of the town promised that disease and death would hold high carnival there.”

Those are the words of Reuben Davis, born in 1813 in Winchester, Tennessee. He was a medical practitioner invited by his brother to head west, which he did in 1829 — to the newly established town of Memphis, the town where he predicted that diseases such as malaria, typhoid, smallpox, measles, and cholera would indeed “hold high carnival.”

That same year, local officials asked for and were granted by the state legislature the grand sum of $3,330 to build the first hospital in Tennessee — Memphis Hospital, which was located on Front Street and served the city’s transients, indigents, and riverboat workers. (Residents would have been treated in their homes.) And so it began: Memphis as medical center. Then, Memphis as Civil War hospital center. Then, Memphis as site of a series of yellow fever epidemics that decimated the population. But the city survived to what we know it to be today: Memphis as front-ranking in the medical field.

All these tales and a great deal more are told in a thoroughly researched coffee-table book called Memphis Medicine: A History of Science and Service (Legacy Publishing Company), published with the cooperation and assistance of the Memphis Medical Society and authored by Patricia LaPointe McFarland and Mary Ellen Pitts. It’s been handsomely designed by Robin McDonald. It’s been abundantly illustrated by photo editor Richard Raichelson. And what a history it has to tell.

The city survived to what we know it to be today: Memphis as front-ranking in the medical field.

There was ophthalmologist Edward Coleman Ellett, an outstanding surgeon, recalling in 1935 his training in the early 1890s: “We had cocaine as a local anesthetic . . . and we knew there was such a thing as antisepsis, though I shudder now to think how it was practiced. In the Wills Eye Hospital we did not have a single gown or mask or cap . . . .”

There was John Richard Brinkley (1885-1942), who, unlike Ellett, was no doctor. He was a charlatan who married a woman from Memphis — the daughter of a local physician named Tiberius Gracchus Jones — and he won fame as a restorer of sexual virility. The operation was simple: transplant the gonads of a goat into the patient’s scrotum. He was eventually driven out of business, but he’s buried in high style in Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, where his grave is crowned by a large winged-victory statue. Said one former patient of Brinkley’s: “I knowed he was bilking me, but I liked him anyway.”

There was pediatrician C. Barton Etter, who served in World War II. It was Etter’s job to report to his superior officer on the occasion of George Patton’s visit to a hospital tent in Sicily. That report, which described General Patton striking a soldier who’d been admitted to care due to “nerves,” made more than national news: It would permanently color our view of George Patton.

And on a brighter note, there was leading hematologist Dr. Lemuel W. Diggs, who pioneered research into sickle cell disease, and on a more recent note, there was Peter C. Doherty from Australia, who worked at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and went on to share the 1996 Nobel Prize in medicine.

St. Jude: Its founding by entertainer Danny Thomas is just one of the many stories here that trace the development of the city’s hospitals, clinics, and institutions, not the least of which is the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

The book also spotlights well-known figures, whether they be well-known physicians or successful medical entrepreneurs (as in the case of Abe Plough). And it travels, in its latter half, from the strides the city made in the 1950s to the social changes of the 1960s to the technological innovations of the past 40 years. The business of delivering medical care isn’t overlooked either. Nor are the city’s professional groups — chief among them, and the oldest, the Memphis Medical Society, whose own history dates back to 1876. And for Memphis Medicine, we have the Memphis Medical Society to thank.

“There had not been a comprehensive history of Memphis medicine in 40 years or so,” says Dr. Thomas C. Gettelfinger, who chaired the committee of doctors who oversaw the project. “In 1984, Patricia LaPointe McFarland authored From Saddlebags to Science, but that book stopped at 1930. The time was ripe for a new book.”

Enter John Compton, who heads Legacy Publishing in Birmingham, Alabama. He approached the Memphis Medical Society with an idea for that new book, one that would not only update the story of Memphis medicine but fund it through the sale of profiles of doctors or group practices. As head of the Memphis Medical Society Communications Committee, Gettelfinger helped in assessing and accepting Compton’s offer, with the Medical Society acting as sponsor. Victor Carrozza, director of membership and communications for the Medical Society, stepped in to aid in the research. And writers McFarland and Pitts, who has had an ongoing interest in writing on medicine and who has taught at the University of Memphis and Rhodes College, were brought on board.

“There had not been a comprehensive history of Memphis medicine in 40 years or so . . . the time was ripe for a new book.”

“We assembled a small committee of doctors to advise, assist, and mentor the authors,” Dr. Gettelfinger says. “And we met on multiple occasions, particularly Saturday, so we became known as the Saturday Group. Our goal was to give the writers suggestions and direction, each of the doctors in the group — Frank Adams, Reed Baskin, George Cowan, Nick Gotten, and Webster Riggs Jr. — contributing a different slant, different perspectives. Those discussions were freewheeling, sometimes heated, always informative.”

“Tom Gettelfinger was the engine that kept us all on track,” says McFarland, who has worked in the Memphis and Shelby County Room at the Main Library for more than 20 years. Having written From Saddlebags to Science, she was already well versed in much of the city’s medical history. What she uncovered in her fresh research on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the years leading up to World War II, however, surprised even her.

“Some of the most interesting new material in the book related to the floods of 1927 and 1937,” she says. “The Memphis Medical Society did outstanding work organizing care for the thousands of flood victims. In addition, almost nothing had been written locally about where Memphis doctors during World War I served. The growth of medical specialties in Memphis was a direct result of the medical experience those doctors gained in the Great War.”

Approaching the material that covered World War II to the present day was slightly different. According to Pitts, “The historical periods that Patricia used were firmly established, whereas I was breaking new ground. Each decade offered new insights, new technologies, and changes in focus.

“For me, the challenge was to move from the macro level of the history of medicine to the local level. I surmounted that problem because of the physicians in the Saturday Group. They helped me place Memphis medicine in the larger cultural context and then focus on Memphis physicians, hospitals, and research.”

Not to be overlooked, according to Dr. Gettelfinger, is the economic impact of the city’s health sector (an impact he terms “enormous”) or individual achievements — plus related, if lesser-known, facts. Among those achievements, in the words of Dr. Gettelfinger:
“Dr. Ed Garrett Sr., longtime Memphis surgeon, did the world’s very first coronary bypass graft in 1964 during his association with Dr. Michael DeBakey. Dr. Douglas Sprunt did the landmark study of the effectiveness of PAP smears in cervical cancer. Dr. John Shea Jr. was a world leader in ear surgery. And Mark Twain’s brother died here of burns in a steamboat explosion. I could go on.”

Let me go on with at least some mention of the “profiles” that make up the closing chapter of Memphis Medicine — a chapter called “Memphis Medical Histories,” which were edited by Paulene Keller and Mary Ellen Pitts.

The essays run from writeups on professional groups (such as Memphis Eye and Cataract Associates, where Dr. Gettelfinger practices) to the more personal: Dr. Lester R. Graves, for example, recalls his mentor, Dr. William P. Maury, in the field of OB/GYN and goes on to write about the changes he’s witnessed in the ways he practices medicine and the ways he does business.

Dr. Indurani Tejwani, who arrived in Memphis from India during the sanitation workers’ strike in 1968, remembers the day when, as one of two female interns at John Gaston Hospital (and the only one of “color”), she was asked by another (male) intern to mop the operating-room floor between surgeries.

But leave it to general practitioner Dr. John V. Pender Jr. to sound another note, one to accompany the city’s illustrious history in every branch of health chronicled in Memphis Medicine and one critical to the welfare of the families he’s served since earning his M.D. in 1960.
“I have never been and never will be one of the shining lights in Memphis medicine,” Dr. Pender writes. “I have simply been one of the front line, foot soldiers.” 

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