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One of America’s First Female Pediatricians Saved Lives for 74 Years

Dr. Leila Denmark lived to be 114, and practiced medicine for three quarters of a century

Leila Denmark practiced medicine until age 103 and lived to 114. (Courtesy University of Georgia Marketing & Communications)
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When Leila Denmark was born on this day in 1898, there were very few woman doctors in America. When she finally retired in 2001, aged 103, there were hundreds of thousands.

Leila Denmark was a working pediatrician for 74 years—longer than many people are alive. By the time she finally retired, she was treating and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of some of her first patients, writes The Telegraph.

But it wasn’t just the longevity of Denmark’s practice that makes her a name to know. She helped develop a vaccine for whooping cough—there were well over 150,000 cases of it a year in the United States when she started practicing medicine. She also wrote a well-regarded book about parenting. She lived in Georgia for most of her career, practicing out of a farmhouse that was about 50 years older than she was.

In Denmark’s obituary in the Athens Banner-Herald, a local Georgia paper, Lee Shearer wrote that she was one of the first doctors to say second-hand smoke endangered kids. She also didn’t eat sugar, Shearer writes, “a substance medical researchers are now beginning to suspect contributes to a number of health problems, including cancer.”

Although in some ways Denmark was far before her time, in others she was certainly a woman of her generation. Denmark’s views on medicine and children were at times controversial, writes the Telegraph:

She recalled that, when she first began to practice, the air in the city was so thick with smoke “by 10 o’clock you have a mustache;" meanwhile, as there was no tinned baby food, mothers would chew food for their children. Even so, she felt children were healthier than they were when she retired. “When I was a child, there was no such thing as a baby doctor on earth. We had very little medicine, very little surgery, no immunisations and no baby food,” she told an interviewer. “Yet the children weren’t sick like they are today because their mothers fed them right… Today, 85 per cent of children in the United States go to day care, and they are sick all the time. I’m not one to say let’s go back to the past, but there is something to be learned from that.”

Denmark felt that babies should be raised at home by their mothers, and herself arranged her life around that of her own child when she had a baby, wrote Rhonda Mullen Watts in 1998 for Emory Medicine.

Denmark also “never relied on her medical practice to support herself,” Watts wrote. Denmark’s opinion: “Mr. Denmark made the living.”

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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