Recalling years as a pioneer physician South County's first female doctor, nearly 92, has seen it all

June 23, 1996|By S. Mitra Kalita | S. Mitra Kalita,SUN STAFF

Over the course of her 53-year career, Dr. Emily Hammond Wilson has seen it all.

There was the man who swore no woman doctor would ever lay a hand on him; the black girl dying of tuberculosis that no one else would treat; poor families who exchanged chickens, oysters or labor for medicine. And her first patient -- a dog that had been hit by a car.

To the best of anyone's knowledge, Wilson was the first female doctor to serve southern Anne Arundel County. And at times -- when her male counterparts were shipped off to wartime duty -- she was the only doctor in the area.

Wilson, who turns 92 on July 8, also served as the county medical society's president and the chief of staff at what is now Anne Arundel Medical Center.

The Shady Side Rural Heritage Society is chronicling her life in a book titled "Doc, The Life of Emily Hammond Wilson" to be released in August. Therese Magnotti, former president of the society, is writing the book, in which Wilson discusses her childhood on a South Carolina cotton plantation, her experiences as a doctor and the obstacles she overcame in the male-dominated profession.

"She stands out in everyone's minds in South County," Magnotti said. "She probably delivered half of them."

Not quite half, Wilson said. Just about 2,000.

Wilson graduated from the Medical College of Georgia in 1927 and went to work in a Johns Hopkins University medical clinic. She took a leave of absence in 1929 to escape city life and pursue country medicine.

"I always wanted to be a country doctor," she said. "I made up my mind that I was going to treat anybody who came to me."

Her first patient was a dog.

A week after she opened her practice, someone brought in a German shepherd that had been struck by a car. Wilson said she considered stitching up the gash on the dog's shoulder a test -- one she knew she'd passed when people began to come to her clinic.

With just two paved roads in the area, her patients often found it difficult to get to her. So by car, horse or foot, Wilson went to them.

"I never heard her refuse a call," said Dr. Charles Wirth, who shared a practice with Wilson for 30 years.

One night, the man who said no woman doctor would ever lay a hand on him called Wilson complaining of severe stomach pains. She went to see him, finishing the trip on the back of a tractor after her car got stuck in knee-deep mud.

Wilson treated the man for appendicitis and was about to leave when he begged her to stay.

"So I did," Wilson said. "Funny, I never had any problems with him again."

She did have problems with some of her fellow doctors, however, even after she became the first female chief of staff at the former Anne Arundel General Hospital.

"Discrimination is always in the background when you're the only woman," she said. "My father always said I thrived on opposition. But I was determined, too."

While some doctors resisted advances in technology and the development of specialized fields of medicine, she tried to stay current, she said.

"Some of the doctors still thought they could do everything like they were used to," she said. "But you had to learn to be willing to send patients to somebody who knew more than you did. That's very important as a doctor."

Still, Wilson said she sometimes longs for good, old-fashioned country medicine.

"The way medicine works today, you don't get to know any of the families you're treating," she said.

As she sat in her parlor lined with photos of her Southern aristocratic ancestors, Wilson defined country medicine: "If they're sick, you take care of them."

In the days of segregation, this product of the plantation South brought that philosophy to her practice.

"Half my practice was black. They sat in the same waiting room and got the same attention as everyone else," she said matter-of-factly.

Most blacks in Anne Arundel at the time were sharecroppers who paid however they could, in some cases with a day's work on Wilson's farm, a 200-acre spread in Harwood that she bought in 1946. Today, Obligation Farm is a lush, sprawling property with several horses roaming its meadows.

Wilson, twice widowed, lives in one of four houses on the farm, while her two sons and a tenant occupy the others.

She says it's hard to believe that her first home in Anne Arundel County was the summer kitchen of an old house in Tracys Landing. Her 90th birthday present -- framed rows of returned checks made out to Dr. Emily Hammond -- hangs in a room off the parlor as testament to her humble start.

"She never turned anyone away. She did so much gratis work. You just can't find a doctor like her today," said Margaret Moreland, a nurse with Wilson for more than 20 years.

Last week, Wilson attended the wedding of Moreland's grandson, one that was particularly special to her because he is "the fifth generation of the family I have taken care of," she said.

The country doctor forever remains within Wilson, her former colleagues said.

"She still goes and makes calls whenever she's needed to area nursing homes and hospitals," Wirth said. "But now she goes not as a doctor, but as a friend."

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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