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Leila Denmark: The Longevity of a Legendary Doctor

Calla Lily ProfileArleen Solomon Rotchin5 Comments
The pediatrician who practised medicine until she was 103 years old.

The pediatrician who practised medicine until she was 103 years old.

The third of 12 children, she was born in 1898 in eastern Georgia and grew up on a farm learning to tend to plants and wanting to heal animals.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgia’s Tift College in 1922 and taught high school science before enrolling at the Medical College of Georgia in 1924.  She was the only woman in a class of 52 students.

Tift College

Tift College

Four years later, she became the third woman to earn a medical degree from the school and married her childhood friend, John Eustace Denmark, a banker. 

She began her internship in 1928 in the segregated black wards of a hospital in Atlanta and became the first intern at what is now Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. 

When the whooping cough epidemic swept Atlanta in 1932, Dr. Denmark did pioneering research on the disease and was instrumental in helping develop a successful vaccine for the disease. 

She treated some of the city’s poorest children as a volunteer at the Central Presbyterian Baby Clinic near the state capitol in Atlanta. Helping children get well and stay that way was challenging in industrial, pollution-ridden Atlanta during the Depression era.

In 1930, she gave birth to her only child and the next year opened a private practise in her Atlanta home so she could embody the advice she gave to parents.  ‘Be the one to raise your child.’

‘I don’t make appointments,’ she said.  ‘You never know when a child is going to get sick.’

Children and their parents would show up at all hours in need of care.  Over the decades, she rarely charged more than $10 for an office visit.  She didn’t employ a nurse or receptionist and relied on a sign-in sheet to bring order to her waiting room.  

In her 1971 book Every Child Should Have a Chance, Dr. Denmark outlined a child-rearing philosophy that placed responsibility for a child’s health and happiness solely on the parents.

‘If we had every mother taking care of their children, we wouldn’t need prisons,’ she said.  ‘Children are not getting parental guidance and it’s wrecking this nation.’

Leila Denmark never referred to practising medicine as work.  She absolutely loved what she did more than anything else in the world and said she never really worked a day in her life.

When her husband died in 1990 at 91, Dr. Demark was tempted to retire but persevered.

‘You keep on doing what you do best, as long as you can.  I enjoyed every minute of it for more than 70 years.  If I could live it over again, I’d do exactly the same thing.’

Dr. Leila Denmark received several honours during her career, including the Fisher Award in 1935 for outstanding research in the diagnosis, treatment and immunization of whooping cough.

In 1970, she received a Distinguished Service Citation from Tift College, as a devout humanitarian who invested her life in pediatric services to all families regardless of economic status, race, or national origin.

She lived independently until the age of 106, when she went to live with her daughter.  

She passed away on April 1, 2012, at 114 years old.

As a pioneering female doctor, a medical researcher and an outspoken voice in the pediatric community, Dr. Denmark was one of the few supercentenarians in history to gain prominence in life for reasons other than longevity. 

She started treating children in 1928, the same year as Mickey Mouse made his debut and by the time she retired, she was treating grandchildren and great-grandchildren of her first patients.