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Published in Alumni Publications on January 15, 2014

50 Years in Medicine: Still-active physicians extend legacy of healing

By Bruce Coleman

Long before the Affordable Care Act and Medicare, before AIDS and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, before Dr. James Hardy transplanted the first lung and multiple editions of Dr. Arthur Guyton’s Textbook of Medical Physiology had been published, graduates of the School of Medicine had entered the advanced specialty training that ultimately would leave an indelible impression upon the health of the state and the nation.

These alumni honed their craft under the tutelage of some of the most legendary names in health-care history and settled into their respective communities to practice what they had been taught so well at 2500 North State Street. They treated generations of families, formed special bonds with their neighbors and improved the well-being of the populations they served.

And many of them are still actively practicing medicine more than five decades later.

Four of these emissaries of health care explain what still fascinates them about medicine in general – and their respective specialties in particular – and how that interest has helped them forge a lifelong legacy of healing that has lasted longer than they could have ever imagined.

Dr. Louis Wise

Dr. Louis Wise
Dr. Louis Wise

Around lunchtime on a crisp November day, after having seen his last patient of the morning, Dr. Louis Wise rifles through a small filing cabinet nestled behind his desk in his fourth-floor office in the Fondren Building and nimbly plucks out a manila folder.

From his office window, Wise has enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the Medical Center, as it grew from a T-shaped structure into a sprawling health sciences campus during the last 52 years.

Wise’s practice predates his own building: By the time he was 30 and had completed his dermatology residency at Tulane Medical School in 1961, the construction company that had promised his office would be ready still hadn’t finished the new structure. Wise was able to move into the building that October – the third occupant, and to date, the longest-tenured – and has remained in the same location ever since.

To say Wise has been a fixture in the north Jackson community would be more than an understatement. He says that, more often than not, former patients stop him at the local grocery store to speak to him in the checkout line.

“I’ve had close relationships with a whole lot of my patients,” he said. “I enjoy seeing people and dealing with people. It’s sort of a satisfying thing to be able to diagnose a problem that they have, particularly if they’ve had it for a good while and didn’t know what to do about it.”

The roots of his medical training reach beyond Jackson and the Medical Center. He attended the University of Mississippi’s medical school when it was in Oxford, then finished his degree at Tulane. He came to UMMC in 1957 for a one-year internship and developed an interest in dermatology and internal medicine.

In truth, Wise was set to take an internal medicine residency at UMMC under Dr. Robert Snavely when he received a fateful call from Dr. Vincent Derbes, head of dermatology at Tulane.

“I was in the newborn nursery examining a baby when Dr. Derbes called and asked me if I would take a residency,” Wise said. “I didn’t think twice.”

He took to dermatology so splendidly that Wise was named the first recipient of the school’s Peterkin Award for outstanding residency work in dermatology. Dr. Herbert Christianson, chief dermatologist at the Ochsner Clinic and a dermatology professor at Tulane, offered him the opportunity to join his clinic, but Wise turned him down.

“I grew up in Yazoo City,” Wise said. “I knew several people who were practicing in Jackson that asked me to come back. My wife and I decided we would prefer Jackson to New Orleans.

“There were very few dermatologists in the state then.”

His association with the Medical Center has been about as close as his office location is to the main campus. Before Dr. Sabra Sullivan took over the dermatology program full-time, Wise would do consultation work for Dr. Blair Batson in UMMC’s dermatology clinic, once a week.

He helped teach students rotating through the dermatology clinic and led consults at UMMC. But his legacy extends further than the borders of what is now considered the “Fondren district.”

As he built that legacy over the years, the practice of dermatology changed quite a bit from when he first set up shop.

The biggest change to the profession, according to Wise, has been the approach.

“When I was in the training program at Tulane, they never did discuss anything about doing procedures specifically for cosmetic reasons.

“If someone came in and asked, ‘What can I do about all these wrinkles?’ They’d just tell them, ‘You’ve got mature skin.’”

Some of these changes have led him to streamline his practice, to a degree; but seeing patients every day remains part of his routine, one that has kept him interested, involved and entertained for more than half a century.              

“Practically every patient that I’ve seen that has come here for years is constantly saying, ‘I hope you’re not going to retire.’”

Dr. Robert Elliott

Dr. Robert Elliot
Dr. Robert Elliot

Dr. Robert Elliott navigates the pedestrian traffic in the bustling Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, purchases coffee from a vendor and finds an open table in a relatively quiet corner to take a telephone call.

He has a little more than an hour to make his way to a connecting flight that will take him to an American Cancer Society workshop where he is scheduled to give a presentation on cancer cell metabolism.

The bustling environment is a metaphor for his career. As founder of the 16,000-square-foot Elliott, Elliott, Head Breast Cancer Research and Treatment Center in Baton Rouge, La., he has built one of the most innovative breast cancer health centers in the country. As a result, the surgical oncologist has been a man in high demand for a number of years.

Elliott, now 77, graduated from the School of Medicine in June 1961. Almost all of his surgery and residency training were under the legendary
Dr. Hardy, with the exception of a one-year fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis.

That single year, he said, changed the direction of his life.

“I was very fortunate for the opportunity Dr. Hardy gave me to go to St. Louis and learn about electron nanoscopy and cell biology,” he said. “When I first started out in surgery, I limited my practice to breast cancer surgery. At the time, my colleagues had their doubts about the idea of limiting a practice so much.

“It hasn’t been easy; we’ve had our ups and downs, but we were always able to survive because we’ve always had a good patient following. I’ve always believed a higher power has been responsible. But persistence pays off if you believe in what you’re doing.”

That faith has been shared by countless women, many of whom are now alive because Elliott had the courage to limit his surgical specialty so many years ago.

“My patients don’t want me to retire – they just love me and want me to continue helping them,” Elliott said unabashedly. “Every day, I wake up with the desire to learn something new. I have always been a prodigious researcher and publisher.

“It’s not like a job; it’s a hobby to help folks.”   
Elliott’s “hobby” has stood him in good stead – last August, he was part of the second class to be inducted into the School of Medicine’s Hall of Fame, following his mentor, Hardy. But he said his satisfaction with his career comes from patient plaudits rather than plaques.

“Seeing women overcome their breast cancer diagnosis, go into remission, come back to see me and find they’re still in remission, that’s worthwhile,” he said. “The little notes and cards and letters they send make you think what you chose for your life was well worth it.

“It all boils down to the appreciation of your patients.”

It’s that human connection Elliott conjures when speaking to budding residents about surgery.

“I tell the students to follow their dreams if they have the tendency (toward surgery),” he said. “A lot has changed in the field of surgery, but there will always be a place for it. It’s a very rewarding field, a field of almost immediate accomplishment – to see a patient doing well within a couple of days.

“It doesn’t get any better than that.”  

Dr. Stacy Davidson

Dr. Stacy Davidson
Dr. Stacy Davidson

It’s no secret that the Mississippi Delta is not universally known as a mecca for health-care practitioners. What is a secret, at least as far as Dr. Stacy Davidson is concerned, is that perhaps it should be.

Davidson, 80, started his medical training at Ole Miss and moved with the school to Jackson, where he became a member of the first class at the Medical Center. He graduated from UMMC in 1957, took a one-year residency at Jefferson Davis Hospital in Houston, Texas, did part of his residency training at Tulane and returned to UMMC for advanced ophthalmology training under Dr. Sam Johnson.

He made a happy discovery about his education on the day he reported to Jeff Davis Hospital.

“I found I had the best educational background of anybody when I went for residency training in Houston,” he said. “I was very pleased with what I had been exposed to by my training at the Medical Center.

“A lot of things have come from that training, and I appreciate everything the medical school did for me.”

All the while he was receiving that training, Davidson’s wife stayed put in Cleveland. He finally was able to join her full-time in 1959 when he started the Davidson Eye Clinic, which is still going strong today.

“God’s been good to me and I’ve had good experiences everywhere I went,” Davidson said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have such a good life, having been here a long time in Cleveland.

“I just want to pay back some of the price for the land I occupy here on earth.”

For those with ocular problems in the Delta, Davidson has done that and more. He recalls nights when he was called at home to provide assistance for patients who couldn’t get out of their own bed.

“I get the most thrills and the most personal feeling of satisfaction out of helping patients see better, including economically compromised people,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful experience living in Cleveland and I’ve appreciated the folks that have been so special to us.

“We’re happy here.”

He said a major incentive to practicing in the Delta was the opportunity for his children to further their education.

“One of the main reasons I came to Cleveland was because of Delta State University,” he said. “I felt like, if something ever happened to me, my children could walk to college. It’s a good school and they have all kinds of cultural activities going on that are nice to be a part of.”

Davidson said he also is grateful for the good health he has enjoyed that has allowed him to practice for so long. He overcame a bout with colon cancer more than 20 years ago – “I was out of work a week or 10 days then, took radiation and I’ve been cancer-free ever since” – and in concession to age, he doesn’t operate anymore. But he still sees patients every day.

His advice to students interested in committing their careers to medicine: Ask one question.

“If they’re really interested, pick out a doctor they have faith in and ask him, ‘Would you do this again?’” Davidson said. “I think the answer from most folks would be positive.

“I know I would do it again.”

Dr. Howard Clark

Dr. Howard Clark
Dr. Howard Clark

The Clark Family Clinic and his own home may be the only places more familiar to Dr. Howard Clark than the gridiron at Morton High School.

When Clark, 86, first came to Morton in 1956, he had a desire to play an important role in the community and to be involved with youth. He knew the easiest way to do that would be football.

“I started off the first Friday night ready to go to the football game in Columbia,” Clark said. “At the last minute, someone came in to have a baby. So I missed the game.

“But I haven’t missed one since.”

That includes last November, when Morton High took the field in the state playoffs.

Clark comes by his commitment to the community honestly. It’s what interested him in a medical career from the beginning.

After finishing the two-year medical program at Ole Miss, Clark earned his M.D. at Tulane in 1955. He came to the brand-new Medical Center in Jackson for a rotating internship, where he was exposed to every facet of the medical practice.

It was here that he discovered the value of family practitioners.

“I did deliveries, surgeries – whatever was wrong with people,” he said. “You deliver babies, then follow them on up until they go to the nursing home.

“In Morton, I’ve delivered three generations of babies.”

The opportunity to be engaged in the community has led Clark to a conclusion: “The spice of life is practicing in a small town.

“I feel for the people who are practicing in the city. I like to get out into the community – that’s where the fun is.

“You get to know the people – these people know me and I know them and I’ve watched them grow up,” he said.

He seldom misses the opportunity to continue his education, either.

“Continuing education presentations, that’s my vacation,” he said.

As one of the pillars of the Morton community, Clark’s foremost message to youth is the importance of taking care of the whole self, not just one aspect.

“You can’t just concentrate on one – that would leave a vacuum in your life. You’ve got to work to grow that kid up to be a great American in every aspect, mind, body and soul.

“I can get to the youth by being around them, helping them, being a role model and trying to impress upon them the importance of developing those qualities long-term.”

It’s a lesson the Sunday school teacher plans for quite some time to come.

“People say, ‘When are you going to retire?’” Clark said. “I say, ‘That’s not my call, that’s the Good Lord’s call.’ I’ll be seeing patients this afternoon, and I’ll be enjoying everyone that I see.

“Chances are, I’ll be seeing someone (whose) parents I delivered and watched grow up.”