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Dr. Leila Daughtry-Denmark--a life of service to children.

In planning the August healthcare issue, EP's editorial staff felt certain that the 109-year-old Dr. Leila Daughtry-Denmark had seen much in her long and illustrious pediatric career in terms of the care of children with disabilities. As the country's oldest living pediatrician, who was still practicing at 102-years-old, Dr. Denmark has the unique and unparalleled perspective of having practiced pediatrics before the Medical Home, newborn screening, and other innovations that have impacted on the care of children with developmental disabilities.

February 1, 1898. The Civil War is still a vivid horror in the country's collective memory. February 1, 1898. The 1928 discovery of penicillin by Dr. Alexander Fleming is a distant speck on the horizon of medical discovery. February 1, 1898. The influenza A virus strain, better known as the Spanish flu, slumbers for another 20 years before raising its ugly head and throwing the world of 1918 into one of the worst epidemics of recorded history, a killing machine that takes as many as 100 million lives in just 18 months. February 1, 1898. Polio is still claiming and maiming victims and will for another half century.

On February 1, 1898, one of the world's notable medical milestones occurred. On a farm in rural Portal, Georgia, Elerbee Daughtry, the town mayor, and his wife, Alice, welcomed into the world their daughter, Leila, the third of 12 children in the Daughtry family. From an early age, young Leila expressed an interest in life and the restorative powers of medicine as she experimented with reviving wilted flowers and plants, a humble foreshadowing of the doctor's curative touch that would become her life's work.

It's said that every life has a story, and at 109-years-old, Leila Daughtry, who in 1928 became Dr. Leila Daughtry-Denmark after graduating as a pediatrician from the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) one day and getting married the next, certainly has one to tell. This past April, I had the privilege of hearing some of that story and of meeting this living legend.

As I entered the front parlor of her daughter's Athens, GA home where Dr. Denmark now resides, the good doctor was sitting on the couch, and I was immediately conscious of her bolt upright posture. Her physicality was amazing despite her being a tiny slip of a woman, and I immediately knew that I was in the presence of a commanding personage who figuratively filled up whatever room she entered. After all, at the age of 30 she became a pediatrician in an era when most women didn't even go to college, much less become physicians, and in 1928 she became only the third woman to graduate from MCG. Just seven years into her practice, she received the Fisher Award for research as a result of her pioneering efforts in the diagnosis and treatment of whooping cough and subsequent co-development of an immunization to treat the disease.

I graciously accepted the aged hand she extended to me in greeting and settled in for a nice chat. While her daughter, Mary Hutcherson, explained to me at the outset of our conversation that these days "the facts and details and dates have slipped a bit" in her mother's memory, I found Dr. Denmark (or Dr. Leila as she invited me to call her and will from here forward) to be remarkably cognizant. She and I didn't delve into the facts and dates that compartmentalize her life and which can be found on the timeline that accompanies this article. (I gleaned those particulars through the multitude of articles that have been written about Dr. Leila over the years.) Instead, our conversation revolved around the priceless pearls of information and advice that are widely known to be part of Dr. Leila's mantra and philosophy --as a mother, as a physician, as a human being.

I began with the questions that would, no doubt, resonate with EP readers. Dr. Leila treated a number of children with disabilities, especially children with Down syndrome and autism, over her many years of practice. She mentioned working with children with autism "before they even knew what to call the condition." Long before Applied Behavioral Analysis and other autism therapies, Dr. Leila knew that "to force a child with autism to bend to your will was not the best course." She relates that "talking to these children gently but firmly and asking them to get up on the examination table always worked much better." And while this may seem a rather elementary approach from the vantage point of our 21st century world, it is actually rather sound and intuitive wisdom that was ahead of its time back in the 1930s. Dr. Leila also shared that she knew several parents who bucked society's pressure toward institutionalization, instead choosing to keep their children in a loving, family setting. Dr. Leila applauded the courage and tenacity of these mothers and fathers, as she has always been a huge proponent for children being cared for by their parents. It is her opinion that the mother's place in a child's life is especially critical, and her outspoken views on mothers staying home to raise their children drew sharp criticism among feminists in the 1960s and 70s.

She further outlined her views on child rearing in her 1971 book, Every Child Should Have a Chance, and she always followed her own advice, choosing to set up her pediatric practice in the family's home in 1931 after her own daughter was born. In 1982, having reached iconic status as a U.S. pediatrician, she released her second book, Dr. Denmark Said It! and a third in 1998 entitled, Dr. Denmarks's Book of Everyday Wisdom. She was one of the first doctors to raise objections to cigarette smoking during pregnancy as well as around a child, and this advice came long before the term second-hand smoke had been coined. She spoke against drug use as well as caffeine and alcohol intake during pregnancy and had equally strong ideas about children not drinking cow's milk. She thinks fresh fruit is far better than sugar-laden juices. She credits her own longevity to drinking nothing but water, eating no refined sugars and having a protein and vegetable at each meal. It is obvious that her personal health regimen works as she is quickly approaching her 110th year.

From age 30 to 102, Dr. Leila dispensed practical wisdom that effected generations of families in her community, with the welfare of the child always foremost in her mind. And for many of those years she did this out of the family farmhouse in Alpharetta, GA. She had no nurses and no receptionist. All office visits were on a "get in line basis" and cost $10. She answered her own phone right up until the day she took down her shingle. It's said she had a "way" with children, and they were instinctively drawn to her. Her wisdom and experience instilled confidence in parents. Her commitment to all children, those with disabilities and without, is evident in the very title of her first book, Every Child Should Have a Chance, and the book's epilogue further confirms her dedication as she writes:

"This is not a medical book, nor is it meant to be a treatise on child care as the term is generally understood and applied. Perhaps it should not be referred to as a book at all but rather as a group of essays dealing with some of the problems, responsibilities, and opportunities that arise in the rearing and training of children. The thoughts and suggestions expressed in the several chapters are based on years in the practice of medicine, dealing with thousands of children in all walks of life ... the poor and the wealthy, the weak and the strong, the loved and the unloved, the privileged and the underprivileged.

"There is little in the book that has not already been published in some form or other, but I feel that we have to continue saying these things over and over again hoping we may save a child. If only one person is helped, then my time and effort will not have been wasted."

At the end of a charming afternoon, Dr. Leila sent me home with my very own autographed copy of her book, her signature written in a hand that has obviously grown shaky with advanced years. The message of the inscription is solid as steel, however. It says, "Do what you can to help." As I said goodbye, I assured her that we at EP would continue to do just that.

Timeline of Events in the Life of Dr. Leila Daughtry-Denmark

February 1, 1898--Leila Daughtry born in Portal, Georgia, located in Bulloch County in the southern part of the state

Mid-1900s--Leila attends a 2-room school house and then an agricultural/mechanical high school since she lives in a farming community--meets her future husband John E. Denmark while in grade school

Circa 1916--Leila graduates high school and leaves for Tift College in Forsyth, GA to prepare for a teaching career

Circa 1919--graduates from Tift, moves to Mercer University and then teaches high school physics, chemistry and biology for a couple of years

Circa 1924--becomes engaged to John Eustace Denmark, a banker--John takes a job with the State Department and is assigned to the island of Java where no wives are allowed so the couple postpones marriage and Leila enrolls at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta with plans to become a doctor--she is the only woman in her class of 52 students

1928--graduates from the Medical College of Georgia with a doctor of medicine degree and is only the third woman to have graduated from her college at that point in history--marries John Denmark just after graduation--accepts a residency at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and the couple move to that area--soon after takes a two year internship at Henrietta Egleston Hospital for Children, on the Emory University campus also in Atlanta, where she was the first intern and admitted the first patients to the newly opened facility

1930--begins a second internship at Philadelphia Hospital and has daughter, Mary Alice

1931--begins her private practice in pediatrics in Atlanta

1932--deadly epidemic of whooping cough moves through the community and Dr. Denmark begins her research of the disease

1932-1938--publishes her research in the Journal of the American Medical Association and, with her co-developer, Eli Lilly, and researchers from Atlanta's Emory University, develops a successful vaccine

1935--receives the Fisher Award for her research on the diagnosis and treatment of and immunization for whooping cough

1953--is named "Atlanta Woman of the Year"

1970--receives a Distinguished Service Citation from her alma mater, Tift College

1998--receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Atlanta Business Chronicle

2000--Georgia General Assembly honors her with a resolution

2001--retires from her pediatric practice after 73 years

2004--moves to Athens, GA to live with her daughter, Mary Hutcherson
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Title Annotation:Healthcare
Author:Hollingsworth, Jan Carter
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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