Sunday, February 1, 2009

Dr. Leila Denmark Celebrates 111 years of life!

Happy 111th Birthday, Dr. Denmark!
(click on title above to access link to a book of Dr. D's advice)

(*see photo credit information below)

Part I

When Dr. Leila Alice Daughtry-Denmark was a girl, growing up in the little town of Portal near the coast of Georgia, she never dreamed she would become a pediatrician. She went to Tift College to become a teacher, but told me she always really wanted to be a hat-maker and took classes to learn how. When the first world war broke out the young men who were her friends left, (including the one who would become her husband later for almost seventy years, John Eustace Denmark, sent to Java, Indonesia with the State Department), she decided to go to the Medical College of Georgia, becoming the only woman in the graduating class of 1928. Maybe she could help the sick and injured regain a life after such a terrible war? One of her prize possessions was a tablecloth she showed me spread out on the table at her 60th wedding anniversary celebration. It's a patchwork of small silk squares intended to be used as parachutes to drop small bombs all over America during that war. Somehow she had come into possession of them and made a tablecloth from them. "Think of it," she said with shining eyes, "those tiny squares that were meant to bring destruction to hundreds of Americans are now on the table of a home that promotes health and life!"

Dr. Denmark was the pediatrician for all four of my children. And we are far from alone! I continue to meet people whose mothers, children and now grandchildren had gone to her for advice and medical help--three or sometimes four generations of families served by this woman who raised her daughter, Mary, at her feet as she helped other mothers learn what their priorities should be. She broke many of the modern feminist's rules for the "emmancipated" woman. She practiced medicine from her home because she longed to help women learn how to care for their own children and never encouraged mothers to leave their children to get a job. She loves to say, "I never worked a day in my life. If you do what you love, it isn't work." Her husband was a vice-president of a large financial institution in Atlanta throughout his long career. She didn't practice medicine because she felt she needed an outlet or that she had to affirm herself as a person or to add to the family income. She never charged ministers or missionaries one penney. She only asked that they pay her cost for any medicine or vaccine she administered, usually $5.00. She said, "I want to encourage those who are doing God's work." She didn't have a receptionist, nurse or associate. She answered her own phone--sometimes the wait would be long as the caller listened to babies crying and Dr. Denmark's calm, assertive but husky voice giving instructions or chirping softly as she looked at a tiny ear, "Listen, can you hear the little bird?" she would croon.

No appointments were necessary with Dr. Denmark. Bring your child, sign the book in the waiting room and wait...sometimes for hours if there were lots of sick children to see. Then finally, it was your turn. Dr. Denmark's head--the wisps of gray hair settling around it like a halo --would appear at the door. Her eyes crinkled at the corners as she smiled, "Now who's my next little angel?"

(*photo of Dr. Denmark and Mary taken in 1936, photo credit information below)

"Dr. D.", as she is still called by her patients and their parents, made medical history for her part in the development of the pertussis vaccine. She told me she had personally witnessed the deaths of over 75 children in one year due to whopping cough and was determined, with God's help, to try to prevent this. (Ironically, our son, John, whose photo is posted below with Dr. D., caught whopping cough from the vaccine administered to him at five months of age. Dr. D. called me, day and night, for three weeks, every day, to check on his progress--it was a horrifying time which God graciously brought us through, largely due to Dr. D.'s valuable advice and assistance.) She held a 'free baby clinic' every Thursday for over fifty years at a large Presbyterian church in down-town Atlanta where thousands of children were treated, free of charge. "Every child Should Have A Chance to be all that he or she can be," was her slogan. She poured her life into making this phrase take on real meaning and wrote a book by this title full of her advice. A photograph (posted below) of Dr. D. with our son John, sitting on her examination table was the picture on the back cover of her book for years. Although the book is currently out of print, you may be able to purchase one from Dr. Denmark's daughter, Mary (Mrs. Grady) Hutcherson, who resides in Athens, GA.

(photo credit, Betty Wolfe, 1978)

We often asked if we could help out around the clinic--maybe answer the phone for her while she saw patients? "Mrs. Morecraft," she replied once to this query, "when you call me, to whom do you wish to speak and when do you wish to speak to her?" 'Nuff said. Instead, I prayed for her and sent her scores of new patients through the 30 years that I knew her.

Despite living through two world wars, witnessing suffragettes put on tent shows to promote the vote for women in her South Georgia hometown, and seeing the age of the horse and buggy transform into a high-tech world of high anxiety, Denmark said the most significant change in her lifetime has been parents giving up responsibility for their children. It's her pet peeve. "Children are not getting parental guidance, and it's wrecking this nation. Parenting has gone out of style," she said. She said she always had her office in her home so she could keep an eye on Mary... "Parents pursue materialistic goals -- new cars, bigger houses -- to the neglect of their children." She advises against putting children in day care, where she thinks kids are deprived of attention and catch illnesses. "Day care supports the pediatricians in the country." she said with a laugh. "Without it, we'd starve." --from July 24, 1998, article appearing in The Atlanta Business Chronicle, by contributing writer Barbara Keenlyside
What else sets Dr. Denmark apart from other pediatricians besides her refusal to leave her own child with another caregiver to practice medicine? For one thing, she says babies should sleep on their tummies. She scoffs at the 'new' practice of putting them on their backs. But what about SIDS and suffocating on spit-up? Nonesense, she says. Put four towels with a sheet stretched across them (I always used two thick towels) to absorb any spit-up and let the little baby develop his/her neck muscles as she turns her head. She says the digestive system works better on the stomach and that this position affords many other benefits. She believes in scheduling feedings for infants as well as scheduling meals in adulthood--wait at least five hours between meals to allow your food time to digest so that undigested food isn't moved into the gut with the digested food. But what if baby cries between feedings? "That's his privilege," she smiles. "Make sure he's alright and let him develop his lungs a little." She reiterated over and over to young parents, "Your baby has come to live with you and must adjust to your needs, not the other way round. If you live helter-skelter, any which way, with no order in your life, letting your baby set the house rules, you will all be miserable!" Dr. Denmark emphasized the value of human life and loved children as the bulletin board set up in her lobby displaying literally hundreds of notes and photos from her patients attested to. "All your life, your baby will need you--do it right from the start," she says,"and he will always know he can count on you."

She loved to talk about her own homelife. "I was the third oldest child in my family," she would smile, her eyes sparkling with the memories. "My mother didn't like children much--she only had 12." Then the husky laugh, "Mother always knew what to do if one of us was sick. But occasionally she would call the doctor if she thought she needed his advice. When he arrived, he'd say, 'Alice, what do you think is wrong and what do you think we should do?'" Her laugh was warm with the memory. "Most of the time, he'd follow mother's advice and all was well." She greatly admired her mother and father who both died in middle age.

(*photo credits for the two photos in the opening of this article, the one of a young mother, Leila, and her young daughter, Mary, as well as the photo later below of Dr. D. and her brother on the golf course, from an article published in Georgia Magazine, August, 2002, written by Victoria Scharf Decastro)

Part II

(photo credit, from an online article written for the National Library of Medicine, entitled, Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America's Physicians)

Dr. Leila Denmark

Sugar is anathama to Dr. D. "I started developing arthritis in my mid-thirties and by age 50," Dr. Denmark told me once, "I suspected sugar was the culprit so I cut it out. Haven't had a twinge of arthritis since then," (she was about 80 at that time). In fact, she refused to eat the birthday cake presented to her for her 100th birthday because there was too much sugar in it! Dr. Denmark has all her own teeth. She wears the same clothes she made for herself when she was in her twenties. When the property she and her husband had lived on for over fifty years sold in the late 80's due to an agreement they had made with a purchaser many years prior to the date (they assumed they'd be gone to glory by then), Dr. and Mr. Denmark moved their possessions, lock, stock and barrel, to Cumming, where they had bought some land many years before. It had a nice lake and they would often go walking and fishing there for recreation. They hired an architect to design an exact replica of the home they had vacated at the corner of Glenridge and Johnson's Ferry Roads in Sandy Springs and rebuilt on that Cumming property.
The Denmark home in Cumming
The original house was almost immediately torn down and offices now occupy the space. Dr. D. wanted to put all her furniture, rugs, pictures and the curtains she had made sixty years or more before in the exact spots and thus had the replicated home built. Her new office--an old slave cabin on the Cumming property--was rennovated by her 6' 7" tall grandson, (a remarkable height for offspring coming from his Denmark grandparents since Dr. D. was about five feet tall and her husband around 5' 6"!)

Dr. Denmark's office next door to her home in Cumming, GA

Dr. Denmark believes that pasturized cow's milk is akin to poison. She encourages mother's milk until eight months of age and then, having introduced food at around three months, three big meals a day with a mashed banana as the common ingredient in each pureed meal. Not only is this fruit of choice full of minerals, it's sweet and makes those green beans and pureed beef go down more easily. She swears she did the research and that cow's milk actually destroys red blood cells. That's what she preaches and who am I to argue? A mere no-nothing mother...So, my grown children--all in their thirties--drank virtually no cow's milk growing up. They have (almost) perfect teeth, healthy bones and pretty amazing good looks if I do say so myself! Instead of 'fun foods', they ate three hearty meals a day of very healthy food, mostly farm-fresh vegetables, particularly black-eyed peas, (high on Dr. Denmark's list of good food--she says that's what Daniel ate instead of the king's rich food in the Bible), eggs, whole grains, a little red meat, fish or chicken and whatever fruit was in season. They drank clean water, ran around outside in all weather, climbed trees, helped feed the chickens and worked in the garden, were read to often, loved by parents and grandparents, were taught the scriptures, were praised more than spanked but were spanked when necessary (some days, a lot), played hard, slept well and grew up happy and healthy. Our boys were taught to always show respect, especially to ladies and remove their hats as soon as they entered the house. Our girls were taught to work as hard as boys, who were also taught that work is a virtue, not an option, and were expected to act like ladies always, even when being "tomboys."
The four rules of the Morecraft house were easy to remember if not always obeyed perfectly:
2)obey quickly
3)obey cheerfully
4)"Whatever you do, do it with all your might, as to the Lord."

Three of our children in the photo above in 2007. Below, Joey and his wife, Jennifer, (not present for above photo), in 2008

Dr. D. believes in certain vaccinations but started them later than is common today and didn't give multiple vaccines at the same time. (I think a case could be made that she would question the wisdom of many of the newer vaccines but that's another subject and only an opinion.) Her greatest contribution to three generations of mothers was to urge them to stay at home with their children. "Why do you want to go off to work and take orders from some other man?" she would say to each mother who entered her office. "Stay home and make your husband happy--cook him three healthy, hearty meals a day, raise happy, healthy children and God will smile on you."

Although Dr. D. advised eating three healthy meals a day, she ate very little most of her life, starting the day with a cup of hot water (she never drinks any other drink than water), figs preserved in honey when she had them or a banana, eggs and a piece of toast. She rarely took the time to eat lunch but had whatever she wanted for dinner (minus the sugar and milk, of course) and told us she usually only slept about five hours a night. Once when my husband had caught some nice little fish from her lake, he offered to prepare some for her dinner. "How would you like me to prepare them?" he asked her, expecting to hear her say broiled or baked. "How 'bout frying them up in a little lard," she smiled.

She loved to play golf with her husband. They tried to get away to the Canadian Rockies or White Sulphur Springs when they could to hike and golf. She loved to tell about the time she was hiking around her lake in Cumming. "All of a sudden," she laughed her husky laugh, "I spied a big, ol' copperhead coiled up beside the path. Well, sir, I don't like to kill things--I mean, after all, he was there before I was, so I guess he kind of had squatter's rights. But I started thinking, might someone come along that would be bit by that fella and that could be really bad." Her eyes twinkled. "Now I had just recovered from breaking both my wrists a few days earlier--I slipped on something when I was going out to feed the birds on my patio out back several weeks before and broke both wrists. They had just come out of the casts when I saw that snake. But I real carefully picked up a pine limb that had a knot in the end kinda like a golf club. I aimed at his head and swung and, well...(laughing)...that ol' boy's not ever gonna hurt anybody..."

(photo of Dr. Denmark and her brother playing golf. In one of the last rounds she played while in her 80's, Dr. Denmark sank a 26-foot putt!)

(*photo credit info listed above)

Dr. D. had to quit her practice at age 103 because of macular degeration of her eyes that couldn't be corrected -- she is legally blind. Still willing to talk to parents by phone from her daughter's house where she lives now, this determined, Christian woman who urges women to keep the best job in the world and stay at home with their children, raising them to be strong, productive, courageous adults, is one of my heroines.

Thank you for teaching us to be committed mothers and wives and for helping me raise four strong children who are leading godly, productive, joyful lives, due in large part, to your example and advice. Thank you, for helping me and thousands of others raise the next several generations of Christian leaders and mothers!

Happy birthday, Dr. D.

[For more Denmark advice on baby and child rearing, look online or in your local stores for Madia Bowman's book, Dr. Denmark Said It! ]

Her children rise up and bless her; her husband also, and he praises her, saying: 'Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all.' Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. --Prov. 31:28-31

(photo of John Morecraft, age 14 months, taken with Dr. D. in 1978)
(photo of John and Kim Morecraft and their children, Asa and Izalou, 2008.)

Joy at Home

(a poem written in honor of Dr. Leila Denmark when Mercy was four months old)

The far horizon beckons me

to distant shores unknown,

but I must firmly turn away

and find my joy at home.

Such joys there are, though simple ones--

there's joy in baby's smiles

that bring contentment to my heart

far more than wordly wiles.

And when she's sad, we all are sad;

and when she frowns, we sigh.

Our ears are tuned and listening out

to hear her slightest cry.

Yes, I've found much adventure

as distant lands I've roamed,

but contentment deep and rich

are mine as I find joy at home.

--Becky Morecraft

March 7, 1991