An Icon in Medicine Passes Away

Dr Leila Denmark left her mark on pediatrics and on the world

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Renowned pediatrician and medical pioneer Dr. Leila Denmark, one of the world's oldest women and a co-inventor of the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine, died Sunday at the age of 114 of natural causes.

The fourth oldest living person in the world until Sunday, she had been living with her daughter Mary in Athens, Georgia, for the past eight years. She is survived by her daughter, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her husband passed away in 1990.

Born February 1, 1898, Dr. Denmark was the third of 12 children. Until she retired in 2001 at the age of 103, she was the oldest practicing doctor in the U.S., according to the American Medical Association.

She grew up in rural Bulloch County, Georgia, taking care of farm animals from baby chickens to injured calves, according to her website.

Dr. Denmark taught two years of high school science before beginning work on her medical schooling in the fall of 1924.

She was the only woman in the class of 1928 - and the third to earn an MD in the history of the school - when she graduated from the Medical College of Georgia.

Dr. Denmark is believed to be the first female pediatrician in Georgia, where she practiced for 73 years, primarily in Atlanta but later in Forsyth County, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

As the first intern at the Henrietta Egleston Hospital for Children, now called Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Dr. Denmark admitted the hospital's first patient.

She moved to private practice, working out of a home office, after her daughter Mary was born in 1930. According to her website, her last office was a 19th century farmhouse.

"Doing what you don't like is work," Dr. Denmark was fond of saying. "Doing what you like is play. I have never worked a day in my life."

When pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, ravaged the U.S. in the 1930s, Dr. Denmark began researching the disease and ultimately played a role in developing the pertussis vaccine later used in the DTP shots that protected countless children from the disease.

Her work toward the vaccine earned her the prestigious Fisher Award, and she was Atlanta's "Woman of the Year" in 1953. Over the next several decades, Dr. Denmark compiled her views regarding the best ways to raise and care for children, culminating in the book "Every Child Should Have a Chance," published in 1971.

Among her beliefs were that pregnant women should not take drugs and children should not be exposed to cigarette smoke - long before either idea was popular. She also believed children and adults should never drink cow's milk after being weaned.

Overall, she kept it simple: "The most important thing that a child can have is good parents," she often said.

"Leila was the kind of physician we hope all of our graduates become -- a pioneer in their field, a caring and kind caretaker, and a consummate professional," Dr. Peter F. Buckley said in a prepared statement, as reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"She led by example, counseling us to be better parents, to raise healthier children and to set an example ourselves -- to ‘live right and eat right,' as she would say," he said.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 4, 2012
Last Updated:
April 4, 2012