Dr Leila Denmark – at 103 she was the world’s oldest practising physician
When she retired in 2001, Leila Daughtry Denmark, M.D., was America’s oldest known practising physician. She was one of the first women paediatricians in Atlanta and has been seeing patients and advising parents for more than seventy years. Her remarkable career has been reported locally and in the national news, and in 1998, when she was 100-years old, her ongoing work was featured in a profile in ‘People’ magazine.
Leila Alice Daughtry was born in Bulloch County, Georgia, in 1898, to Elerbee and Alice Cornelia Hendricks Daughtry. She was the third of their twelve children, and grew up in a farming community, attending high school at an agricultural and mechanical school. She earned her undergraduate degree at ‘Tift College’ in Forsyth, Georgia, and after graduating in 1922 taught high school physics, chemistry and biology for two years. In 1924, Leila Daughtry enrolled at the Medical College of Georgia as the only woman in a class of 52 students. In 1928, she was the third woman to graduate from the school with a doctor of medicine degree. That same year she married John Eustace Denmark. She then went on to a two-year internship at the Henrietta Egleston Hospital for Children in Atlanta, where she was the first intern – and admitted the first patient at the newly founded institution. In 1930 she began a second internship at Children’s Hospital, Philadelphia, and had a daughter, Mary Alice. In 1931, Dr Leila Denmark began her private practice in paediatrics in Atlanta. In 1932 a deadly epidemic of whooping cough swept through the community, prompting Dr Denmark to begin studying the disease. Over the next six years, she published her research in the Journal of the American Medical Association and, with Eli Lilly and researchers at Emory University, developed a successful vaccine.
Dr Denmark developed an extraordinary familiarity with the health and well-being of children. Her patients reported that she could often determine exactly what was wrong with a child when they first walked into the office, just by looking. When she first launched her career, there were very few effective medicines for some of the most serious ailments affecting her patients, but even though far more drug therapies became available, Dr Denmark promoted common-sense preventive medicine and therapy over pharmaceutical remedies wherever possible. Running an office out of a farmhouse near her home until her retirement in 2001, Dr Denmark kept costs down by leaving a sign-up sheet for patients instead of hiring a receptionist and charging just $10 for the first visit and $8 for every visit thereafter. In 1935 Dr Denmark received the Fisher Award for outstanding research in diagnosis, treatment, and immunization of whooping cough for her work on the vaccine. In 1953 she was named “Atlanta Woman of the Year“, and in 1970 she received a Distinguished Service Citation from Tift College, as “a devout humanitarian who has invested her life in paediatric services to all families without respect to economic status, race, or national origin“. Among numerous other honours, Dr Denmark also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Atlanta Business Chronicle in 1998. She died aged 114.
Article By Henry Spencer