From childhood, Leila Daughtery-Denmark wanted to heal sick plants, animals, and people. She became a physician in 1928. For more than seventy years, her specialty was pediatrics. She believed doctors were born, not made. Turned out she was born to save children from whooping cough.
The third child of Elerbee and Alice Hendricks Daughtry, Leila Daughtery cried her first cry on February 1, 1990. They lived in what is now Portal, Georgia, USA.
Interested in healing and science, she would take cut flowers and try to heal them. If an animal or one of her eleven siblings were ill, she’d help heal them.
She attended local schools, then graduated from the First District Agricultural & Mechanical School, now Georgia Southern University
During her senior year at Bessie Tiff College in Forsythe, Georgia she served as a teaching assistant in biology. After two years of teaching she discovered it wasn’t what she wanted to do.
An Unplanned Delay
Though she’d never seen a woman doctor, but student volunteers spoke about a mission in India. Women in India could not be examined by a male physician. If she needed an exam her husband did it and told the doctor what he’d found. Leila decided those women needed a female doctor.
She was engaged to John E. Denmark, who worked for the State Department. Leila thought she’d get married after graduation and forget about medical school.
Before they could marry, Mr. Denmark got assigned to go to Java, Dutch Indies. No wives could accompany their husbands to that post. They postponed their wedding. And Leila decided to go to medical school.
A Woman Doctor
She applied to Emory University Medical School and never received a response. Perhaps because of her gender.
In 1924, she went to the admissions staff at the Medical College of the University of Georgia in Augusta. They told her they had fifty-two men enrolled and had no more room for any students. She asked them to “Just try me out” for a few days. And they agreed. She believes if she hadn’t been a woman, that wouldn’t ploy wouldn’t have worked.
There were two other women in that Medical College. One was a senior, and the other was a junior. Busy with their own learning, they didn’t mentor or encourage her.
Leila denies any discrimination. She said she didn’t expect them to accept her. She showed up for meetings and got on with learning.
Mr. Denmark returned to the states in 1928 shortly before she graduated with her medical degree. They married seventy-two hours after her graduation.
They moved to Atlanta, where she volunteered at Grady Hospital.
Henrietta Egleston Hospital for Children (now Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta) opened later that summer. Leila Denmark was the first intern and admitted the first patient. She was also an intern at CHOP, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The practice of medicine was primitive. They had no antibiotics, no X-rays, and no vaccines. Diphtheria, Typhoid fever, and Whooping Cough were killing “worlds of people,” including children.
Doctors learned which diseases caused which symptoms. They learned to recognize which conditions required surgery, how to do the surgery, and how to help their patients heal.
Healing patients wasn’t easy. They had to study the patient—what was their life like, what they ate, what was their complaint, and when they first got sick. Doctors tried to keep their sick patients nourished, hydrated, and to reduce their fever and pain. It was all they could do.
Whooping Cough (Pertussis) is a highly infectious respiratory disease. It’s causes a severe cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like a “whoop.” Listen to the recording below.
Symptoms resemble a cold at first. After a week or two, thick mucous causes uncontrollable, prolonged coughing. These coughing spells can lead to vomiting, to struggling to breathe, and turning blue. Infants are especially vulnerable to the disease. They can’t eat or drink much without more coughing. Dehydration and pneumonia and respiratory distress or even stopping breathing are potential complications.
In 1931, she opened a private practice in her home. She saw patients in her breakfast room. She also worked at the Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. And she volunteered as a doctor at the Presbyterian Church Baby Clinic in Atlanta.
Leila saw lots of patients with whooping cough. Lots of patients died. She recalls one family who lost three children to the disease. They had no treatment. She wanted to save children from whooping cough.
Co-Creator of the Pertussis Vaccine
In the 1930s, Leila began researching the disease. Her interest lay in how to diagnosis whooping cough, how to treat it, and immunization against it. Eventually she took some blood from a man who recovered from whooping cough. Spun the blood so the serum rose to the top. She gave a dose of the serum to a severely ill baby. To her surprise, the baby recovered quickly. Shortly after that, she began working with Ely-Lily and Emory University. They credit her as a co-creator of the vaccine.
In 1935, they awarded her the Fisher Prize for outstanding research in the diagnosis, treatment, and immunization of whooping cough (pertussis), in 1935.
Author and Legacy
Leila wrote and published a book, “Every Child Should Have a Chance,” in 1936.
She was an outspoken advocate for children. Teaching parents what nutrition their children needed. Urging mothers to remember that parenting was an honorable career and duty.
Published in 1971, “Denmark Said It!: Advice for Mothers from America’s Most Experienced Pediatrician,” is a reference guide of her advice.
Leila Daughtry-Denmark continued her practice treating grandchildren and great-grandchildren of her first patients. She worked until her eyesight grew too weak. She retired at 102.
Leila lived independently in her own home until age 106. She lived with her only child, a daughter, after that.
She died a super-centenarian at 114.
Born to Prevent Whooping Cough
Thankfully, Leila never went to India. She saved thousands of lives world-wide by co-creating the pertussis (Whooping Cough) vaccination. Today, antibiotics can treat whooping cough seen in babies too young for the vaccine or teens who didn’t get the booster shot.
A strong woman, Leila Daughtry-Denmark believed doctors were born, not made. She was a practicing pediatrician for more than seventy years. She earned many awards. Recognized as a super-centenarian, she was born to save children from whooping cough.