ATHENS, GA. – Hundreds of mourners came to Athens First United Methodist Church last Thursday to honor the woman they called “Dr. Leila,” the Alpharetta pediatrician whose advice and ideas on health still hold today.
At age 114, Dr. Denmark was the fourth oldest living human being on the planet before she died April 1. To put that in perspective remember at her birth in 1898:
William McKinley was president, and she would live to see another 18 presidents inaugurated.
Russia was ruled by a tsar, China and Japan by emperors, Germany a Kaiser and Spain a king.
In the year of her birth the first automobile was sold and the USS Maine sunk in Havana Bay.
But Dr. Denmark is not to be remembered as a mere centenarian. She was not only a pioneer for career women but a pioneer in science. She was a co-developer of the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine, which won her medicine’s Fisher Prize in 1935. Sixty-three years later she won the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Health Care Heroes Award for lifetime achievement.
The third woman graduate of Georgia Medical College in Augusta in 1928, she practiced as a pediatrician for 75 years.
Want to know the secret of living to be 100? Don’t retire until you are 103.
“Dr. Leila” was legendary as she would still see 15 to 20 patients a day when she was past 100. Only in 2001 did she raise her office fee of $8 – to $10. It was estimated she saw 250,000 patients in her career.
“I never make appointments, you never know when a child is going to get sick,” she would say.
In addition, for 50 years Dr. Leila spent one day a week working pro bono in the medical clinic at Atlanta’s Central Presbyterian Church. She would often see her own patients at no or little charge, and she never turned down a Health Department referral.
“My mother never talked about her faith, but she practiced it,” said her daughter Mary Hutcherson at Dr. Leila’s funeral. “She was out there to help people, whether they poor, family or whatever. All she wanted was to see that children got the chances they needed.”
She was also the author or co-author of two books on child care: “Every Child Should Have a Chance” in 1971, and “Dr. Denmark Said It: Advice from America’s Most Experienced Pediatrician.”
She came from an era when effective drugs were in short supply and children were more susceptible to diseases.
“We nursed children back to health in those days,” she said in an interview.
She also had firm views about what she saw as a decline in child-rearing. For instance, she did not like today’s daycare. She believed it best for children to be raised at home where they get more attention and are exposed less to disease and infection.
In fact, she said parenting today has “gone out of style.”
“It’s not poverty that is harming our children. It’s parental neglect,” she said.
She also said milk for children was harmful and advised children and adults to eat no sugar except in fruit – and no fruit juices.
She also had a word of advice for young people but would serve adults of any age:
"Never do anything or say anything that one day you'll want to forget."
After her retirement she continued to live in Alpharetta until 2006 when she moved to Athens to stay with her daughter. She became more frail as she got older, but had seemed to be getting on well before she died, according to Mrs. Hutcherson.