Dr. Leila Daughtry Denmark, shown with a very young patient, was a local pediatrician who practiced medicine until she was 103. LYNN JOHNSON
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Dr. Leila Denmark, 114: Legendary pediatrician, one of the world's oldest people

Doctor did not like to talk about her age, but she loved to talk about babies and how to keep them healthy

Dr. Leila Denmark did not like to talk about her age, but it was a subject that was hard for many to avoid.

She practiced medicine in Atlanta for 73 years and well past her 100th birthday. When she retired, at 103, the veteran pediatrician was the oldest practicing physician in the country, according to the American Medical Association. And she only retired because she couldn’t see as well as she once did, “otherwise she would have kept on,” said her daughter, Mary Denmark Hutcherson.

“She was an excellent diagnostician and she dispensed medical advice over the phone until she was 110 because her mind was still sharp," Mrs. Hutcherson said. "It was her eyesight that was failing,”

Over the years reporters would call and want to interview her, but the doctor made her intentions clear from the beginning, her grandson said.

“She’d tell them if all they wanted to talk about was her age or where she was practicing, that was not what she wanted to talk about,” said Dr. James D. Hutcherson, who lives in Evergreen, Colo. But she loved to talk about babies and how to keep them healthy, he said.

Leila Alice Daughtry Denmark, of Athens, died Sunday at her daughter’s home of natural causes. She was 114. A funeral is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday at Athens First United Methodist Church, 327 N. Lumpkin St., Athens. She will be buried Friday in her hometown of Portal, a Bulloch County town about 170 miles southeast of Atlanta. Lord & Stephens, East Chapel, Athens, is in charge of arrangements.

Read the online guestbook for Dr. Leila Denmark

Dr. Denmark lived, and worked, in rarified air. She was believed to be the first female pediatrician in Georgia. She was the only female graduate in the Medical College of Georgia's class of 1928 and the third woman to earn an M.D. from the school. At the beginning of this year she was one of 89 supercentenarians, people who had lived 110 years or more, and when Dr. Denmark died, there were 71 on the list, with her the fourth-oldest.

Dr. Leila Daughtry-Denmark who was the first intern at Henrietta Egleston Hospital for Children in 1928 is with her daughter Mary.
Photo: HANDOUT

Her family said it is important to note that Dr. Denmark didn’t set out to become famous. Her only goal was to raise healthy babies and help them become healthy adults.

Three days after then-Dr. Daughtry graduated from medical school, she married John Eustace Denmark, and the couple moved to Atlanta. They were married for more than 61 years when he died in 1991.

Dr. Denmark’s first job was at Grady Hospital, and when Henrietta Egleston Hospital opened three months later on the campus of Emory University, she became the first intern and admitted the first sick baby. In 1930 she began a second internship at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and returned to Atlanta just in time to give birth to the couple’s only child, Mary Alice Denmark.

In 1931 Dr. Denmark opened a private practice at home, but her reach extended much further. A whooping cough epidemic in the '30s spurred Dr. Denmark to research the disease, and her findings led to the development of the pertussis vaccine and the modern-day DPT vaccination.

During her more than 70 years as a pediatrician, she preached preventive medicine and old-school parenting techniques. In 1971 she wrote “Every Child Should Have A Chance,” a book outlining tips for raising healthy children. It has gone through several printings.

Leila Denmark and grandson Steve Hutcherson celebrate her 113th birthday with pie.
Photo: Family photo

Madia Bowman, a Cumming mother, had read Dr. Denmark’s book and realized there was so much that hadn’t been published. Mrs. Bowman eventually approached Dr. Denmark with the idea of creating a sort of appendix that could accompany the original book, but the doctor had a different suggestion.

“She said: ‘Why don’t you publish your own book? You have five children and you’ve learned some things, so why not make it a blend of our advice?’ And that’s what I did,” Mrs. Bowman said. Her book, “Dr. Denmark Said It!” took eight years to compile and was published in 2002.

Mrs. Bowman, who eventually had six more children, all seen by Dr. Denmark, said she would have never known about the doctor had it not been for the recommendation of a friend.

“I wasn’t able to see her before my first child was born, but on my way home from the hospital, I stopped by to see her,” Mrs. Bowman said. “Dr. Denmark was in her 80s at the time, but it took less than five minutes and I knew she was the one I wanted looking after my children.”

The dean of the Medical College of Georgia said Dr. Denmark was the school's oldest alum and a shining example.

"Leila was the kind of physician we hope all of our graduates become -- a pioneer in their field, a caring and kind caretaker, and a consummate professional," Dr. Peter F. Buckley said in a prepared statement. "She led by example, counseling us to be better parents, to raise healthier children and to set an example ourselves -- to ‘live right and eat right,' as she would say."

Dr. Denmark would say she never worked a day in her life because she loved what she did.

“She said when you love what you do, it’s not work, it is play,” said Steve Hutcherson, a grandson who lives in Atlanta.

In 2006, five years after she retired, Dr. Denmark said her recipe for a long life wasn’t complicated.

“You keep on doing what you do best as long as you can,” Dr. Denmark said at the time. “I enjoyed every minute of it for more than 70 years. If I could live it over again, I'd do exactly the same thing and marry the same man.”

She is also survived by nieces and nephews.