Dr. Wilson, medicine woman

Physician: A centenarian recalls breaking the gender barrier to become the first female practitioner in southern Anne Arundel County.

August 02, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Emily Hammond Wilson, When Emily Hammond Wilson was a young country doctor in the 1930s, she traveled southern Anne Arundel County on horseback to visit patients in their homes and deliver babies, toting a black bag made of alligator skin.

Payments for her services came in all forms: oysters, turkeys, homemade bourbon or a day's work.

Wilson was at the forefront of female doctors in Anne Arundel County - and someone who treated both black and white patients, even as the county's main hospital refused to admit black women into the maternity ward.

And last month, she was honored by the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society after marking her 100th birthday with family and friends at her South County farm.

Wilson still enjoys a scotch and soda at cocktail hour - a finish to the day at her home with her dog Beauregard and visiting family members who live nearby. Portraits of past generations - such as her great-grandfather, James Henry Hammond, a slave owner who represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate - adorn the walls.

She says she never imagined she'd live to be 100, but takes pride in having helped to break down barriers for women.

"Men tried to ignore me," Wilson said during an interview last week at her home, Obligation Farm. "We've finally gotten daylight."

The South Carolina native was born in 1904, the oldest in a family of eight children in a rural area near the Georgia border. As a headstrong tomboy, Wilson said, she treated and bandaged ailing animals on the Hammond family's 1,000-acre plantation.

But what made an impression on her was watching her mother tend to sick neighbors, including about 20 black families who lived on the farm.

"Her example of helping with the medical problems of anyone in the neighborhood was [my] primary influence," Wilson told her biographer, Therese Magnotti, in her book Doc, which was published by the Shady Side society in 1995.

After earning her medical degree in Georgia and studying at Johns Hopkins Hospital, she learned there was a need for a doctor in the southern Maryland countryside. She stepped off the bus from Baltimore in a village named Friendship in 1929 to open a practice, not knowing a soul but determined to prove skeptics wrong.

Growing up in the Deep South had shaped Wilson's views on race. While Jim Crow laws separated black and white citizens, her practice was desegregated, down to the waiting room.

Lucille V. Brown, a Shady Side resident who is African-American, said of Wilson, "She delivered my first child in the 1940s, when black people had their babies at home. She served not only the white, but the black and the white. She would come when you would send for her. She was cut out to be a doctor."

"I was the first woman doctor in this end of the county," Wilson said. "People needed a doctor so bad they were forced to have me."

The practice

Men in the medical establishment resisted her far more than patients did, she recalled. Starting with her student days at the Medical College of Georgia, she quickly got used to being a minority of one in the room.

Starting out in the Depression, she handled all kinds of medical situations. "I did a lot of sewing up, delivered a good many babies at home, took out a lot of fish hooks, dispensed medicine and diagnosed patients," she said.

She was the first doctor to diagnose tick fever in the region, according to her biography.

The art of listening was at times more valuable than anything in her black bag, she said.

"You'd have to sit down and talk about the root of the disease or injury," Wilson said.

At age 28, she married John Fletcher Wilson, and the couple had two sons, John and Christopher. But Wilson didn't stop practicing.

Often she took one boy or the other with her on calls, leaving them outside a sick family's house while she made her visit. Her first husband died in 1952.

Office visits

As people began to use cars in the 1940s, she stopped paying house calls by horse. And then she began seeing patients at an office, rather than at home - a major change.

After setting up office on Route 2 in Harwood - now an antiques shop - she gradually persuaded patients to come see her.

She saw plenty of medical advances, but she said nothing compared to the discovery of penicillin, which helped her to save lives by treating infectious diseases.

"That was a lifesaver, the best thing that happened to me in my practice," she said.

Wilson said she referred the most complex cases to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she had studied for a year after completing medical school. In 1951, she was elected chief of staff of Anne Arundel Medical Center.

She continued her practice into her 70s. After retiring, she and her second husband, Albert Tupper Walker, traveled, and she expanded her farmhouse's flower gardens. Walker, who'd been her suitor when they were teenagers, died in 1988.

Nancy McCall, archivist of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, said Wilson and other female doctors of her generation were studies in self-reliance.

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