Editor's Note: Founded in 1919, this year marks the 100th anniversary for South County Health. As part of our community outreach efforts, The Independent has partnered with the organization on a series of stories related to the history and mission of South County Health. They will run periodically in our newspapers this year and will appear online on our website at IndependentRI.com.
In the first half of the twentieth century, South County Hospital’s doctors were generalists, expected to respond to a wide range of circumstances.
They acted as surgeons, obstetricians, pediatricians, and anesthetists. They maintained family practices, performed emergency surgery, conducted hospital rounds, made house calls, and engaged in preventive care, such as vaccinations and school health checks.
Dr. John Paul Jones is the doctor most associated with the hospital’s origins, because he ran the Cottage Hospital with his wife, Carolyn Jones, a registered nurse (more on Dr. Jones later). But Wakefield, Narragansett, and surrounding communities had other physicians, and some of these would be given hospital privileges when the new building opened in 1925.
A document from around this time lists four practicing physicians at the hospital: Jones, Dr. Henry B. Potter, Dr. Malford Thewlis, and Dr. Horace Wilcox.
Some accounts claim that Jones and Potter were the only doctors in town at various times. The 1915 town directory, however, published before Jones arrived, lists six doctors besides Potter, Wilcox and Thewlis: Edmund Abbott of West Kingston, and F. Edward Burke, Henry K. Gardiner, Edward Kenyon, John E. Perry and Rowland R. Robinson, all of Wakefield. Robinson, who owned a large parcel on Main Street, supposedly got the coveted “1” license plate in 1904 for the car he used to make house calls. Some of these physicians may have stopped practicing before the Cottage Hospital was built.
Dr. Potter, Dr. Jones forged a pair of legacies
Dr. Potter arrived in South Kingstown in 1906. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania, he had interned at St. Joseph’s Hospital before his arrival in South County.
Potter settled into a commodious white house with black shutters where BankRI is now on Main Street. He soon cut a familiar figure in town, as he made house calls in his open touring car, a tam o’shanter on his head.
His daughter, the late Betty Potter, who would become important as a hospital volunteer, recalled in a 1994 interview that legend had it she was conceived during a blizzard in 1920, when “it snowed so hard even Dr. Potter couldn’t get out.”
Potter became chief of staff at the hospital in 1938. The hospital’s annual report for the following year gives a flavor for the cases the hospital’s handful of physicians handled: 518 surgical cases, 305 medical, and 191 obstetrical, with 164 babies delivered. The daily patient census varied from a low of 16 to a high of 51.
Dr. Jones arrived after Dr. Potter, sometime around 1915 or 1916. He had graduated from the University of North Carolina in two years and Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia at the top of his class. This was all the more remarkable because Jones had never attended high school, having been forced to spend two and a half years in bed with a broken back after a horse-riding accident.
He practiced in Macon County, North Carolina, for a brief time in 1912-13 before heading to Idaho to join his brother Harry’s medical practice, but Harry died while he was en route and Dr. Potter practiced solo there before coming to Rhode Island to cover his brother-in-law’s practice while the latter was serving in the British Army.
He had married the former Carolyn Miller in 1915, and together they would make a formidable team. When he, too, left to join the military, she continued to work as a visiting nurse in Wakefield while he served at a hospital in France. He was gone for 20 months.
As would be true of World War II, the first “Great War” gave many physicians training and exposure to new methods and techniques. Dr. Jones would have gained more experience in wound care and surgery, as well as in giving blood transfusions and reading Roentgen X-rays.
He returned to town in August 1919, just a few months before Carolyn Hazard’s invitation to discuss starting a new hospital. He would serve a long tenure at the hospital, including stints as chief of surgery, chief of staff, and an honorary member of the Board of Trustees, eventually retiring in 1970 at age 83.
Dr. Jones was highly esteemed. In 1954 he was made a member of the International College of Surgeons, in England, and he was a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. He wrote peer-reviewed articles for medical journals and took regular training at the Mayo Clinic.
Like the Potters, the Joneses would have only one child, a daughter, Virginia. When interviewed for the hospital’s jubilee celebration in 1994, she recalled her father charging $1.50 for house calls, and said he had told her that in World War II, only he and Dr. Potter remained in town, and “he was tired all the time.”
South County was home for Dr. Nestor
Another wave of doctors arrived at South County after the end of World War II. Like their predecessors, they had been battle-tested and exposed to new treatments and procedures. Chief among these were penicillin and sulfa drugs, which revolutionized the fight against infectious disease.
One of the first doctors to bring his wartime medical experience to South County was Dr. Thomas Nestor. Nestor, a Providence native and graduate of Providence College, had enlisted in the Army shortly after finishing his residency at Baltimore City Hospital. He spent three years serving in the South Pacific with the 511th Parachute Infantry, earning the silver and bronze stars for his heroic actions parachuting onto battlefields to reach injured soldiers.
In 1946 he joined the staff of South County Hospital and set up practice in a house off Main Street behind Damon’s Hardware. For more than 30 years he tended to the sick, made house calls, performed surgery, and, until the hospital added an obstetrician in 1965, delivered babies.
“I might have delivered them as babies, taken their appendix out as children and then seen them as married couples,” he recalled in an interview in 1987, upon his retirement. “I knew their families. I knew their history – all of that went into my diagnosis when I saw them.”
A typical day for Dr. Nestor might include early morning rounds at the hospital, surgery by 8 a.m., and office calls in the late morning and afternoon. He was known as an efficient surgeon, to the point that OR nurse Barbara Hackey joked, “We always said that people didn’t get gas pains because they weren’t open long enough.”
Somehow Nestor managed to meld the duties of surgeon and private practitioner with the demands of family life. He and his wife, the former Mary Lipscomb, had eight children, four of whom went into medicine – Thomas Jr., John and Elizabeth (Libby) became doctors, and Mary Ellen (Nestor) Davis is a psychiatric nurse.
“He was a very hard working surgeon,” said Dr. Libby Nestor, an emergency physician at Rhode Island Hospital. He was in the operating room many days a week, she said, in addition to maintaining his office practice, and making house calls. She recalled recently that their father would sometimes take one or two of them to the hospital after church. While he made his morning rounds, they would wait in the foyer.
“There was hardly a night went by that the phone didn’t ring,” added her brother, Timothy Nestor of Narragansett.
Dr. Nestor said her father was recruited to South County Hospital by Dr. Jones, who also delivered all of the Nestor children. “They were all friends,” she recalled of the medical staff. “[Jones] was maybe his longest-term doctor friend.”
Their mother, who also was a registered nurse and went back to work at Kent Hospital after most of the children were grown, “was more a city girl,” Dr. Nestor said, and always told her husband that with his credentials – he was a fellow of the American College of Surgeons – he could have had a Providence practice.
But the variety and intimacy of the small-town hospital seemed to suit him. He had imagined “I’d take it a little easier and be a country doctor,” he told the Providence Journal when he retired. “I often laugh about it because I was busier down here than I would have been in Providence.”
A year after his retirement, an anonymous donor pledged $100,000 for the hospital’s new surgical pavilion if the new suite would be named after Dr. Nestor. After his death in 1992, a group of contract bridge players known as the South County SLAMS commissioned a portrait of him by artist Peg Gregory that still hangs in the hospital.
When he passed away, his friend and colleague Dr. John J. Walsh had this to say, in a tribute he wrote for the hospital’s Lifeline newsletter: “He was a very honest person, almost to a fault, was dearly loved by his patients and was a physician’s physician.”
Dr. Walsh dedicated his life to hospital
Dr. Walsh arrived in South County in 1953. A Navy veteran and a graduate of Boston College and Tufts Medical School, he had returned to City Hospital in Boston for more training. It was there that he met Dr. James McGrath, one of the World War II veterans who had joined South County Hospital’s medical staff after the war. Dr. McGrath recruited Dr. Walsh to join his Wakefield practice, and a year later Dr. Walsh went on his own.
Dr. Walsh, eventually chief of surgery, was the hospital’s first board-certified surgeon. He also is its longest-tenured doctor, having worked at the hospital for 57 years, until his retirement in December 2010. He had retired as a surgeon when he was 65 and continued to work in the Emergency Department until age 89. He then volunteered at the hospital until 2014.
His career bridged an incredible array of technical advances. He recalled that when he started in the 1950s doctors sometimes performed surgery in patients’ rooms and read their own X-rays.
In an oral history recorded with former hospital President Donald L. Ford, among others, Walsh reminisced about one of his more challenging days in the OR.
Performing a surgery with a colleague, Dr. Erwin Siegmund, he offered to finish sewing up the patient. Dr. Siegmund asked to meet in the Emergency Room afterwards. Expecting to confer about a case, Dr. Walsh was surprised when a nurse hustled him into an examining room, where Dr. Siegmund was stretched out on the bed.
He had been suffering belly pain and wanted Dr. Walsh to examine him. “He had appendicitis. We operated on him right away … It had damn near ruptured.”
Dr. Walsh and his wife, Agnes, raised five children – she was a widow with two children when they married in 1958. His son Tim said his father has “a love for helping people that drove him to work all those hours.” He recalled that before the children woke up, his father “would be awake and out of the house to perform rounds at the hospital … Then off to surgery, office visits, home for dinner followed by calling in the prescriptions to the pharmacy and then off to house calls.”
Dr. Walsh also did pro bono work at the Christian Brothers Center and Ocean Tides School in Narragansett and was named an honorary Brother as a result, Tim Walsh recalled.
Dr. Eugene McKee, in his memoir “Blood Letting to Binary,” noted that Dr. Siegmund, Dr. Walsh, and Dr. Nestor covered for each other for years.
This was typical of the collegial relations maintained by the medical staff. Dr. Walsh “was always there to help,” said Dr. Alexander A. McBurney, who began practicing urology at the hospital in 1969. “He referred a lot of patients to me, and some doctors didn’t want to refer initially.”
At his retirement, Dr. Walsh told the Providence Journal, “I’ve had a lot of nice patients here. I hope I helped them.”
The doctors who came to South County before the mid-1960s were operating in what some have called medicine’s Golden Age, a time before regulation, insurance companies, and excessive litigation complicated their approach to care. In his article “Medicine’s Golden Age: What Happened to It?,” John C. Burnham notes that doctors in the post-World War II period enjoyed nearly universal approval by the public.
A number of factors would complicate this image. The enactment of Medicare in 1966 would impose a number of record-keeping and diagnostic requirements upon hospitals. Skeptical journalists, and increased litigation, would affect how physicians were viewed by the public and force them to practice more defensive medicine. Cost containment would become a priority.