Leila Denmark was the oldest practicing pediatrician in the United States when she retired in 2001 at the age of 103. In seventy years of practice, Denmark rarely charged patients more than ten dollars for an office consultation, and it was not unusual for her to spend an hour counseling a new mother. Her Alpharetta farmhouse office was visited by families from all walks of life.
Leila Alice Daughtry was born in Bulloch County on February 1, 1898, to Alice Cornelia Hendricks and Elerbee Daughtry. She received her A.B. degree from Tift College in Forsyth, where she met her husband, John Eustace Denmark. She studied chemistry and physics at Mercer University in Macon and in 1928 became the third female to graduate with a medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia (later Georgia Health Sciences University) in Augusta. Upon graduation she began her internship in the segregated Black wards at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, and later in 1928 she joined the staff of Henrietta Egleston Hospital for Children (later Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta), where she was Egleston’s first intern.
Denmark set up a clinic in her home in 1931, after the birth of her daughter, and when the Central Presbyterian Church opened its charity baby clinic in Atlanta, she donated time each week. Subsequently, from 1933 to 1944 Denmark conducted research in the diagnosis, treatment, and immunization of whooping cough, which was fatal for many underprivileged babies. Her research at the charity clinic, assisted by Eli Lilly and Company and Emory University, resulted in the development of the pertussis vaccine, which is still used today.
At the midpoint of her career, Denmark wrote Every Child Should Have a Chance (1971), a book explaining her child-rearing philosophies. Unmoved by generations of baby experts advocating “hands-off” parenting, Denmark placed responsibility for a child’s health and happiness solely with the parents. She was also concerned that the reliance on specialists did not teach children to think for themselves.
Denmark also believed strongly that a woman should not leave home to join the workforce, a stance that drew criticism from the media as well as others in the medical community. She believed that children placed in day care would grow to have little self-discipline or confidence in others.
Denmark received many honors and awards, including the Fisher Award (1935), “for outstanding research in the diagnosis, treatment and immunization of whooping cough”; honorary doctorates from Tift College (1972), Mercer University (1991), and Emory University (2000); Atlanta’s Woman of the Year (1953); Atlanta Gas Light Company’s Shining Light Award (1989); the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s lifetime achievement award (1998); and the Emory University/Wesley Woods Heroes, Saints and Legends Award (2000). In 2000 the Georgia General Assembly named the Leila Denmark Interchange on Georgia 400 in Forsyth County in her honor, and two years later it commended Denmark “for her stellar medical career.”
Denmark died in Athens on April 1, 2012, at the age of 114.