The Pioneers

The remarkable careers of four individuals who helped Baptist Memorial Hospital reach its centennial.

One-hundred: It’s an age few live to see, but a milestone being celebrated right now by Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation. Begun as a 150-bed facility in 1912, Baptist now has 14 affiliate hospitals throughout the Mid-South, along with some 3,100 doctors from every specialty whose combined efforts have earned national recognition. 

To mark its centennial, Baptist has published A Century of Caring: A Legacy of Healing, Preaching and Teaching, which takes readers through the organization’s development. Since this ground is covered so ably in the book, we decided to recognize Baptist’s 100th birthday by profiling four pillars of the company’s past — founding father A.E. Jennings, nursing director Myrtle M. Archer, and physicians Eugene Johnson and R. Eustace Semmes. 

These four people symbolize like little else the hospital system from its inception to the sprawling institution it has become today. Their stories are tales of heroism, discipline, dedication, creativity and, yes, sometimes even daring. Like the time Jennings used his own money to keep the hospital from closing. Or when Johnson crossed a flooded river on a horse to reach a sick child. Or Archer’s work in the Red Cross during World War I. Or Semmes’ pioneering treatment of brain injuries and tumors. 

Like the medical profession itself, these people’s stories are vital and dramatic. They show just what it took to build Baptist Memorial Health Care of today, from the Baptist of yesterday. Because, you see, Baptist isn’t just an organization or a series of buildings; it’s a mission and a vision propelled by people. Remarkable people whose stories were just waiting to be told. — Lindsay Jones


A.E. Jennings

Without A.E. Jennings, Memphis probably wouldn't have a Baptist hospital.As Baptist Memorial Hospital celebrates 100, it might come as a surprise that it very nearly didn’t reach its fourth anniversary. And the fact that it did reach four years — much less the century mark — is almost entirely due to the charity of one man: Alexander Epsie Jennings, known far and wide as Epsie.

Born near Water Valley, Mississippi, in 1866, the son of a planter and merchant and Confederate veteran, Jennings became one of the largest landholders in the Mid-South, owning plantations in Mississippi and Arkansas to the tune of 20,000 acres of land. He moved to Memphis in 1899, where he was a successful retail businessman, operating Rhodes-Jennings Furniture Co. with Herman Rhodes at Main and Gayoso. His worth was estimated at one time to be $2.5 million. (He also saw his share of misfortune at the hands of fickle cotton markets.) He was a member of the Baptist church and gave freely to Baptist charities. In short, as The Commercial Appeal indicated in his obituary, Jennings was “one of Memphis’ and the Mid-South’s most widely known figures.”

It was in service to the church organizations that Jennings contributed his time and considerable money to Baptist Hospital. The institution opened in 1912, but just three years later, the hospital was struggling with debt and on the verge of being shuttered — another victim of the economic stressors of World War I. Dr. W.T. Lowrey, chairman of the hospital’s Board of Trustees, delivered a sermon about the medical center’s hardships. Among the ears it fell on was Jennings’ and, inspired to save Baptist, he stepped in, volunteered to manage the hospital, and assumed personal responsibility for its debt of $132,000.

When Jennings became chairman of the executive committee in January 1915, Baptist was treating only 10 pay patients and 20 charity patients out of 100 beds. Jennings, the successful businessman, employed his financial acumen to rescue the hospital from ruin. Baptist’s fortunes changed under his leadership. The Memphis Press-Scimitar said in a 1935 story, “In 60 days the hospital was on a paying basis and it has not had an operating deficit from that day to this.”

Hospital expansion soon followed. In 1917, Jennings and his friend, Will Dockery, loaned the hospital $250,000 for a new wing. Significant and successful fundraising campaigns were completed in 1918 and 1920. In 1927, a physicians and surgeons annex was constructed.

Following the death of his wife, Dixie, in 1921, Jennings actually moved to Baptist Hospital full-time, so as to dedicate more time to the institution. He lived in a room on the eighth floor. According to the Press-Scimitar, Jennings wasn’t just there to administer to financial and management needs but also to provide support to the patients, their families, and Baptist staff.

“He spent his spare time visiting in the rooms and consulting with employes [sic] not only about hospital affairs but about their own personal welfare and lives,” the Press-Scimitar reported. “He was a kindly man and did much personal charity work outside the hospital.” He served as chairman of the Red Cross in Memphis during World War I and volunteered for the YMCA, Crippled Children’s Hospital, and Porter Home and Leath Orphanage.

For more than two more decades, Jennings served as director of the hospital, until he retired in 1946 on his 80th birthday. All told, he served as director for 31 years. By the end of his tenure, the hospital that once had but 10 paying patients had grown to a 500-bed community anchor with a waiting list of patients.

A bronze plaque was dedicated to him after his retirement, noting that Jennings, “under the Lord’s leadership, had more to do with the development of the hospital than any other individual.”

Jennings died in 1950 at the age of 83. Fittingly, he passed away in the hospital to which he gave his life’s work. Greg Akers


Myrtle Archer

Myrtle Archer was an inspiration to nurses since the first days of Baptist Memorial Hospital.A highly skilled nurse and adept administrator, Myrtle Archer served as director and superintendent of nursing at Baptist Memorial Hospital for more than 30 years. Described by reporters as “a slight blonde with a reserve of energy,” Archer conducted twice-daily rounds over the hospital’s eight floors — overseeing 17 stations, a robust nursing staff, and countless aides. 

She also supervised an ever-evolving body of nursing students and special graduate nurses as a fixture of the Hospital’s School of Nursing. A regular girl Friday, she even filled the roles of dietitian and anesthetist when short on staff, in keeping with the magnitude of care inherent to the nursing profession.

A native of the Mid-South, Archer attended Bennett Academy in Clarkson, Mississippi, and then came to Memphis, shaping her career as a graduate of the Memphis General Hospital School of Nursing. There she met the aptly named Dr. Battle Malone, who recruited Archer as chief nurse of his Red Cross Hospital Unit P, which became the first Southern unit to go overseas during World War I. 

According to Memphis Press-Scimitar accounts, Archer was sent to the French front at Compiegne — later the site of the signing of the armistice — and trained in a new method of treating patients badly burned by poison gas. She spent 13 months overseas, directing Red Cross aides and even accompanying Dr. Malone (who became chief of staff of Methodist Hospital after the war) to the field dressing stations nearest the front lines. 

Medicine made great advances in treating injuries and disease due to the war, and this knowledge was brought back to Memphis by the returning doctors and nurses. The war also inevitably increased the demand for professional nurses and standards of care for injured veterans.

Years later, in a Commercial Appeal article, Archer was quoted as saying, “To find adventure and romance in nursing you must have a deep, worthwhile motive for going into the profession. You must apply yourself strenuously to the job and share the experiences of your patients. The nursing profession is in need of girls. It is work which gives basic training leading to a variety of fields. Now in rebuilding this war-torn world, we need nurses more than ever before.”

Archer’s statements beautifully articulate her devotion to helping those in need. She took a special interest in surgery and pediatrics, but truly appreciated the dynamic nature of her profession and never displayed an inclination to move beyond the sphere of nursing. 

When Baptist Memorial Hospital opened in 1912, the facility simultaneously organized a school of nursing. Archer first went to Baptist as head nurse and assistant to the superintendent, and then became supervisor of a floor before taking on the position of director. 

She held prominent positions in the city’s early nursing organizations, serving as president of the Tennessee State Nurses Association, and was a member of the American Nurses Association, the National League of Nursing Education, and the Memphis Council of Nursing Service. Archer was also elected first vice president of the Memphis chapter of the World War Nurses Association in 1938. 

When she retired in 1949, hospital administrator Frank Groner said, “Her untiring efforts to assist in the development and growth of Baptist Hospital have been inspirational for all of us. We sincerely appreciate her faithful and valuable service.”  Ashley Johnston


Dr. Eugene Johnson

Dr. Eugene Johnson gained national fame as one of the leading surgeons of the South.More than 5,000 people attended the memorial service at Idlewild Presbyterian Church for Dr. Eugene Johnson, who had died on February 19, 1938, from pneumonia. It’s safe to say that a good many of those in the crowd that day were his former patients, because the newspaper obituaries noted that over the course of a remarkable 40-year career, Johnson had performed more than 100,000 operations — often seeing dozens of patients the same day. The Memphis Press-Scimitar observed, “Thousands of times the skill of the knife in the hands of the late Dr. Eugene Johnson, one of the most famous surgeons in the South, changed death into life.”

Born near Lexington, Mississippi, in 1874, Johnson went to work for a drugstore in Yazoo City at the age of 15. When he wasn’t delivering prescriptions or helping customers, he would pore over medical books by lamplight in the store’s back room. In his late teens, he moved to Memphis, and at the age of 21 graduated from the old Memphis Medical College in 1897. Then he returned to Mississippi and set up his medical practice in Yazoo City. 

Old newspaper accounts are filled with tales of his heroic endeavors. One time he rode by horseback to reach an isolated farm in Mississippi where a child was suffering from diphtheria. Trying to cross the swollen Yazoo River, he was swept off his horse, but managed to swim to the banks, where he crawled through barbed wire and underbrush to reach the farmhouse and deliver the medicine. 

 More than once, he operated by candles or lamplight when electricity wasn’t available. “He often had to arrange makeshift operating tables,” one of his assistants recalled. “He would take a barn door and put it over two barrels. He used to run his old car close to the window and use the headlights to see to operate.”

When Baptist Memorial Hospital opened here in 1912, Johnson moved to Memphis and joined the staff. “Always immaculately dressed, he was a fine figure walking briskly through the hospital,” wrote the Press-Scimitar, “seeming to give his patients strength through his own physical power.” The newspaper reported that “his great vitality served him well in the prodigious operating that he did.” In these early days before surgeons specialized, Johnson once conducted 22 different operations in 24 hours. By most accounts, he performed more than 40,000 surgeries at Baptist Memorial Hospital alone, in addition to the procedures he did in his private practice.

Stories of his generosity became legend. One day he picked up a little newsboy suffering from appendicitis and carried him to the hospital, operated on him, and never charged the boy’s family a dime. “Sometimes he himself paid the hospital expenses of patients,” wrote the Press-Scimitar. “He recently performed an operation on a little girl, gave her $5, and a train ticket home.”

Even when he became dreadfully ill with the flu, he climbed out of his deathbed to perform one last operation on a woman because he had promised that he could help her. When the flu turned into pneumonia, he didn’t stop working until X-rays persuaded him that the end was near. While he was sick, the hospital switchboard jammed with calls from patients, asking about his condition.

Upon his death, the Commercial Appeal published an editorial headlined, “He Served Humanity Well.” The newspaper noted that while Johnson “was a surgeon of marvelous skill, he was at the same time the most human of men. Always genial and good-natured, he had a happy bedside manner that, coupled with his skill in the operating room, was reassuring and fortifying to his patients.” In conclusion: “The Mid-South lost a delightful gentleman and a benefactor in his death.” Michael Finger


Dr. Eustace Semmes

Dr. Eustace Semmes blazed a trail for neurosurgery in Memphis.Even as a boy, he showed extraordinary signs of courage, curiosity, and a high intelligence. He rode horseback over mountains in the middle of the night to fetch a doctor for his feverish sister. He struck up a friendship with a professor of zoology, and used a microscope to study the brain of a chipmunk. He finished 12 years of schooling in only seven, and was accepted to college without an examination.

Dr. R. Eustace Semmes grew up to become a world-renowned neurosurgeon and practiced at Baptist throughout his career. 

Born in Memphis in 1885, Semmes was educated at Christian Bothers High School and received his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he trained with Dr. Harvey Cushing, considered the father of American neurosurgery. After an internship at Johns Hopkins and a general surgical residency at the Women’s Hospital in New York, he returned to Memphis in 1912 — the same year Baptist opened. After setting up an office there, he soon discovered that the city of his birth was woefully behind in brain surgery.

 The following year, when he was appointed assistant professor of neurosurgery at the UT College of Medicine, Semmes started training general practitioners and students how to treat head injuries and diagnose brain tumors. For close to two decades — part of which time he served in the Army Medical Corps during World War I — he was the only neurosurgeon in Memphis and once said he spent many a Saturday evening “taking dents out of skulls.” 

In 1932 he was named professor of UT’s newly established department of neurosurgery, and in that same period, he told a colleague he wanted a bright young resident he could train as a partner in practice. That doctor was Francis Murphey, who eventually became the other half of Semmes-Murphey Clinic. 

Semmes was known throughout his profession for using only local anesthesia on his patients to avoid the hazards of coughing and vomiting that general ether anesthesia could cause. Though he focused primarily on brain surgery, he also gained a wide following for his surgical treatment of herniated lumbar disks.

During their years together, Semmes and Murphey brought about several medical advances at Baptist, where Semmes served as head of staff for several years. Because the doctors strongly believed in specialized nursing care, the hospital established the first intensive care unit for neurosurgical patients. In 1974, at the urging of the Semmes-Murphey Clinic, Baptist became the first hospital in Memphis and the third in the country to purchase a first-generation unit of an EMI/CAT head-only scanner.

The recipient of countless professional honors, Semmes was also loved by friends for his warmth and dry wit. The story goes that once, while riding an elevator with a man decked out in safari hat, jacket, and boots, he inquired of the gentleman, “Have you shot any lions today?”

A husband and father of two children, Semmes died in 1982 at the age of 96. Today the practice he started is called the Semmes-Murphey Neurologic and Spine Institute, with nearly 40 physicians who treat patients all over the Mid-South. And the field of medicine he pioneered in Memphis, with Baptist hospital as his base, now boasts subspecialties too numerous to name. — Marilyn Sadler 


Special thanks to Patricia LaPointe McFarland, co-author of Memphis Medicine: A Century of Science and Service, for her help with this story. Photos courtesy of the Benjamin Hooks Central Library and the University of Memphis Libraries.

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