As the national battle over the future of American health care legislation rages, the Memphis Medical Society has published a comprehensive look into the extensive history of an industry deeply rooted in the city’s commerce and culture.
“Memphis Medicine: A History of Science and Service” encompasses the nearly 200-year journey of the people, institutions and innovations that have transformed the city into the Mid-South’s epicenter of medical knowledge, education and expertise.
The hardbound book’s extensively researched but layman-accessible text and accompanying vintage photographs narrate the city’s rich, complex medical history from its beginnings as a town founded in 1819 as a real estate venture partly funded by then- General Andrew Jackson.
From its herbs-and-roots folk medicine beginnings, Memphis medicine blossomed over the next two centuries, culminating in its reputation for world-class research hospitals, respected teaching facilities and cutting-edge procedures, as well as the city’s contemporary prominence as an incubator for biosciences and biotechnologies.
“A very unrecognized contribution to this city is the medical community, and we’ve had a terrific medical community here,” said Dr. Tom Gettelfinger, clinical associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, past president of the Memphis Medical Society and chairman of the ad hoc committee for the newly released book. “There have been histories before, but none that have been presented in this format and have attempted to be this comprehensive.”
Gettelfinger, who wrote the foreword to “Memphis Medicine,” said the last comprehensive history of medicine in Memphis, titled “History of Medicine in Memphis,” was published in 1971, also by the Memphis Medical Society, a nonprofit organization founded in 1876 to promote health education.
Forty years later, in “Memphis Medicine’s” foreword, Gettelfinger writes of the early settlers, the steamboat era, the Civil War, the devastation of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, and the effects of World Wars I and II on developments in medicine.
He introduces readers to the three major private hospitals – Baptist Memorial (once the nation’s largest), Methodist and St. Joseph (later called Saint Francis) – as well as the 1962 opening of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and accounts of the deaths of Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr.
“All of those things kind of make it a rich tapestry of medical interest,” Gettelfinger told The Daily News. “The key thing is that we haven’t recognized the medical community for its achievements and for its tremendous contribution to the economy.”
“Memphis Medicine” was co-written by writer and former English professor Mary Ellen Pitts and archivist and historian Patricia LaPointe McFarland.
Pitts, who taught at the University of Memphis and Rhodes College, holds advanced degrees in English from the University of Florida, while McFarland, a former longtime curator of collections in the Memphis and Shelby County Room of the Memphis Public Library, holds a master’s degree in history from Memphis and has a special interest in the history of medicine.
McFarland in 1984 published a medical history called “From Saddlebags to Science: A Century of Health Care in Memphis, 1830-1930,” which was sponsored by the Memphis Health Sciences Foundation.
McFarland, who started work on “Memphis Medicine” in 2008, said the group’s intention was to “highlight those things that have been especially significant in the development of medicine in this community.”
She said Memphis’ location in the midst of a large agricultural area has served as a key factor in its development as a prominent medical- industry city.
“We’ve been fortunate to have good hospitals, a fine teaching university in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and an excellent location,” McFarland said. “People have come here from all over the Mid-South – West Tennessee, North Mississippi, North Alabama and Eastern Arkansas – for medical care.”
McFarland said UTHSC, which celebrated its centennial this year, has played a pivotal role.
“It had some tough days in the beginning, but once it became firmly established, it provided an educational foundation, and the whole medical center developed around the university,” she said.
And when St. Jude opened it attracted a more diverse group of professionals.
“It really focused on the science of medicine, and Memphis became a very diverse medical community,” said McFarland, who wrote the first eight chapters of the book. “The medical community here previously was a very close fraternity with a number of medical families that went into the third and fourth generation. By the 1960s, medicine became diversified and St. Jude played a key part in that diversification. Now we have people from all over the globe here.”
Copies of the book, which retail for $44.95, are available through the Memphis Medical Society and will be sold at local bookstores in the coming months.