The world's oldest living pediatrician

February 1, 2008

A tribute to Leila Denmark, MD, the world's longest living pediatrician.

In 1898, the year of the Spanish-American War and the Curies' discovery of radium, baby food magnate Daniel Gerber was born. But, an even more important figure in the world of pediatrics was born that year: Leila Denmark, MD.

Denmark helped in developing the vaccine for pertussis, the "P" in the DTaP and Tdap immunizations. Millions of whooping cough infections are avoided by the continual vaccinations of children at 15 to 18 months, 4 to 6 years, and 11 to 12 years.

Born on a farm in Portal, Georgia, Leila Daughtry was one of 12 children. She met her future husband John Denmark in their two-room schoolhouse, complete with pot-bellied stove. She went on to finish her college studies and become a teacher. When John went off for a State Department job in Java, it was "no wives." So, Leila decided to make the most of her time. She entered the Medical College of Georgia, and graduated in 1928, the third woman graduate from the program. She became the first intern at Henrietta Egleston Children's Hospital, now part of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

During this time, she also began volunteering her time to help with whooping cough sufferers, many of whom were poor children. Her research and knowledge of the disease was used to help Pearl Kendrick and Grace Elderling make the pertussis vaccine. Pertussis infected millions each year: now it barely exists.

As astounding as that achievement was, her current claim to fame is better. She is currently the US's oldest living and longest-practicing physician. She is 110 years old, having retired in 2002 at 104, after 72 years of medical practice. Her secrets? Denmark drinks only water: if she wants fruit juice, she eats fruit. No milk. She has a vegetable and protein with every meal. Nutritionists can argue about the value of this, but the results in this case certainly speak for themselves.

She was also one of the first advocates against tobacco and caffeine use by pregnant women, and warned about the dangers of cigarette smoke for children and pregnant women. She usually billed patients $10 for a visit-not a $10 copay, but a flat rate. She has almost never dealt with insurance. She still does a few phone consultations, but much of her work is accepting awards. The children's hospital where she started recently named a room in honor of her. She received an honorary doctorate in science from Emory University. She's also written a few books on raising children, over the years.

Don't call her centennial-plus of life experience work, though. One of Denmark's philosophies is that play is what you want to do, and work what you have to do. By that estimate, she has not worked a day in her life. Maybe that is why she's still thriving! (Or it could be never dealing with insurance companies....)