Early physicians remembered for dedication, versatility

Published 04/23/2019

In the first half of the twentieth century, South County Hospital's doctors were generalists, wearing the hats of 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 most associated with the hospital's origins. It was he and his wife, Carolyn Jones, a registered nurse, who ran the Cottage Hospital on Kenyon Avenue. Once the new hospital building opened in 1925, other physicians from Wakefield, Narragansett, and surrounding communities were soon given hospital privileges.

A document from that era lists four practicing physicians at the hospital: Dr. Jones, Dr. Henry B. Potter, Dr. Malford Thewlis, and Dr. Horace Wilcox. Some accounts, however, claim that Drs. Jones and Potter were the only doctors in town at various times.

In addition to Drs. Potter, Wilcox and Thewlis, the 1915 town directory that was published before Dr. Jones arrived in Rhode Island, lists six doctors - Edmund Abbott of West Kingston, and F. Edward Burke, Henry K. Gardiner, Edward Kenyon, John E. Perry and Rowland R. Robinson, all of Wakefield. Some of these physicians may have stopped practicing before the Cottage Hospital was built.

Dr. Robinson was among the most notable figures in the community in 1904. He owned a large parcel of land on Main Street and was recognizable from the coveted “1” license plate on the car he drove to make house calls.

Dr. Henry B. PotterDr. Henry B. Potter (SCH 1906 - )
After graduating from the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Henry B. Potter interned at St. Joseph's Hospital in Providence before moving to South Kingstown in 1906. When he arrived, he settled into a commodious white house with black shutters, located where BankRI now stands on Main Street. He, too, was a familiar figure in town, making house calls in his open touring car, donning a tam o'shanter on his head.

By 1938, Dr. Potter had been named chief of staff at South County Hospital. According to the hospital's 1938 Annual Report, 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.

His daughter, the late Betty Potter, provided testament to her father’s dedication to the practice of medicine. She quipped that if it hadn’t been for a blizzard in 1920, she might never have been born. Quoted in a 1994 interview, Ms. Potter recalled a legend that she was conceived during the blizzard when “it snowed so hard even Dr. Potter couldn't get out.”

Dr. John Paul Jones (SCH 1915 – 1970)
Dr. John Paul Jones joined Dr. Potter at South County Hospital in 1915 or 1916. A scholar, he had graduated from the University of North Carolina in two years and was at the top of his class at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. This was 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.

For a brief time in 1912-13, Dr. Jones practiced in Macon County, North Carolina, before heading to Idaho to join his brother Harry's medical practice. While en route to Idaho, Harry died, leaving Dr. Jones to practice solo while there. His move to Rhode Island was motivated by his brother-in-law, another physician in the family, who was called to serve in the British Army. Dr. Jones came to Rhode Island to help cover his brother-in-law's practice during his deployment.

When Dr. Jones married the former Carolyn Miller in 1915 they became a formidable team. When he joined the military, serving at a hospital in France for 20 months, she continued to work as a visiting nurse in Wakefield.

As was true of World War II, the first “Great War,” WWI, gave many physicians training and exposure to new methods and medical techniques. Dr. Jones gained more experience in wound care and surgery, as well as in giving blood transfusions and reading Roentgen X-rays.

He returned to Rhode Island in August 1919, just a few months before Carolyn Hazard invited him and others to discuss starting a new hospital. 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. 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. He eventually retired in 1970 at age 83.

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 that her father charged $1.50 for house calls. He had told her that during World War II, only he and Dr. Potter remained in town, and “he was tired all the time.”

At the end of World War II, another wave of doctors arrived at South County. Like their predecessors, they had been battle-tested and exposed to new treatments and procedures. Chief among these were penicillin and sulfa drugs that revolutionized the fight against infectious disease.

Dr. Thomas NestorDr. Thomas Nestor (SCH 1946 – 1987)
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 Dr. Nestor joined the staff of South County Hospital, recruited by Dr. Jones. In addition to being friends and colleagues, Dr. Jones had delivered all of the Nestor children.

Dr. Nestor set up his practice in a house off Main Street behind the former Damon's Hardware store. 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 have included 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 one medical surgical nurse, Barbara Hackey, joked, “We always said that people didn't get gas pains because they weren't open long enough.”

Somehow Dr. 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 became 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.

“Hardly a night went by that the phone didn't ring,” added Timothy Nestor of Narragansett, the elder Dr. Nestor’s son.

Their mother, a registered nurse, went back to work at Kent Hospital after most of the children were grown. She “was more a city girl,” Dr. Nestor said, who repeatedly reminded him 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, wrote a tribute that was published in the hospital's newsletter, “Lifeline”: “He was a very honest person, almost to a fault, was dearly loved by his patients and was a physician's physician.”

Dr. John J. WalshDr. John J. Walsh (SCH 1953 – 2010)
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. A year later Dr. Walsh went on his own.

Dr. Walsh was the hospital's first board-certified surgeon, eventually named chief of surgery. He remains South County Health’s longest-tenured doctor, having worked at the hospital for 57 years, retiring in December 2010. Although he retired as a surgeon when he was 65, he continued to work in the Emergency Department until age 89, 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 read their own X-rays and sometimes performed surgery in patients' rooms.

In an oral history recorded with former hospital President Donald L. Ford and others, Walsh reminisced about one of his more challenging days in the operating room.

While performing a surgery alongside Dr. Erwin Siegmund, he offered to finish stitching up the patient to close the incision. Before exiting the OR, Dr. Siegmund asked Dr. Walsh to meet him in the Emergency Room when he was done. 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 abdominal pain and wanted Dr. Walsh to examine him.

“He had appendicitis,” Dr. Walsh later explained. “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 had “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.”

“Medicine’s Golden Age”
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 became a priority, while maintaining a high level quality of care.

Next: Beginning in 1965, South County Hospital meets this challenge by recruiting more board-certified physicians and specialists, acquiring the technology necessary to improve patient care, and allowing doctors more of a role in the institution's governance.