I studied medicine because it was a challenge, and I wanted to know

Posted by | November 21, 2013

“I went on to Columbia University, as I had planned. I was just a year late. But Mother promised that I could go on and do graduate work. So, I went on up to Columbia University. I did work in Bacteriology.

“And then, I hadn’t known much about hospitals or laboratory work, but then I got into hospital work, and I studied to be a laboratory technician, you know. And Mother and Dad came up there. We took an apartment, and they came up there and stayed with me that winter. And I was still writing a thesis when they wanted to come home in the spring, and so I stayed on in New York and finished my work up there, and then I came home in 1919 and opened a laboratory here in Asheville. Had my own laboratory.

“It was in the Coxe building right there where the craft shop is, you know. There’s a florist shop in there now, and four Doctors had their offices in there. Dr. Glenn and Dr. Cotton, and who else? Dr. Hipps and Dr. Meriwether. And I took the back room to make that into a laboratory. And there’s another firm of doctors. Dr. Smith, Bernard Smith, and Dr. Lynch, and Dr. Adams were all on the other side.

“Well, I cut a door between those two offices and I had to work from those two sets of doctors, you know.

“Later, when I went back to school, in 1922 I guess, I went back to study medicine. After I did laboratory work, then I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to study medicine. And my father was, encouraged me in it. In fact, he gave me the idea first. He said, “If I had the money, you might as well be a doctor instead of fooling along with this sort of thing, you know. If I had the money, I’d put you through medical school.”

“[As far as women doctors in Asheville,] Dr. Margery Lord was here. [Dr. Margery Lord, City Health Officer for fifteen years from 1939-1954] And an eye specialist had been here. Dr. Merrimon. She fitted my first glasses when I was just a little girl. It wasn’t striking out for woman’s liberation at all, not at all. I studied medicine because I was interested in it. Because it was a challenge, and I wanted to know. …

Dr. Mary Frances (Polly) Shuford  with Stump Town, NC children

Dr. Shuford greets neighborhood youngsters of Stump Town, as they gathered in front of house she had years before converted into Shuford Colored Clinic, where the black residents of Asheville could receive needed medical care. A friend’s gift of $15,000 made the clinic, which opened in 1940, possible.

… “In ’35 I think I opened up my office. But it was awfully hard to get started because it was during the depression and, well, I couldn’t get work anywhere. I wasn’t known here as a physician. And Northern Hospital [where I had interned] was a small hospital, and small private hospital. They had no room for another physician on the staff.

“And Dr. Ingrathaw, Louise Ingrathaw, was really very friendly and helped me. But what I did, I’d been a laboratory technician before, so I opened up a laboratory first and to be sure that I’d have enough money to make it on I asked around to see several doctors.

“And they paid me so much a month to do all their work, no matter what it was. It wasn’t on a fee basis. They just guaranteed me so much work a month. And I got started like that.

“But then, you can’t do two things. As soon as people started coming to me as patients, the doctors didn’t want me to do their laboratory work. And I can understand that. I couldn’t do both. I either had to specialize in pathology, in the laboratory work, or I had to be a physician. Well, I wanted to be a physician. I didn’t want to do the laboratory work. I studied medicine to get out of that.

“Well, in a year or so, I think I stayed in that laboratory, maybe I would say two years, and then Louise Ingrathaw said she couldn’t work, she couldn’t work very hard and if I’d come and do her laboratory work, she would give me, let me have part of her office, and there was space during the day, and she wasn’t there, and when she wasn’t there, I could see patients. And then anything that she didn’t want, she turned my way, which, that was the way to get started, you know.

Operating Room of Asheville Colored Hospital, 1945.

When her operating funds for the clinic were exhausted, Dr. Shuford appealed to the Buncombe County Medical Society. With the help of fiery editorials by newspaper editor Charles Webb, the Colored Hospital was established in 1944. Here’s the operating room in 1945. The hospital later merged with three other medical institutions into Memorial Mission Hospital.

“And the first thing she turned over to me was at six in the morning, a colored girl had phoned her that she had a very bad pain, was nauseated and very sick. And the lady she worked for said she was extremely sick, and would Louise come to see her?

“Well Louise phoned me and said, ‘Well, here’s a case for you. You can go to see this girl.’ And she was in the servants’ room, she spent the night there, in her employer’s home. So I went out to see her; inexperienced as I was, it was easy to tell it was appendicitis. Then I tried to get in the hospital here in Asheville, and that’s another story. I didn’t want to give up my entire practice right at the hospital door and that’s what it would have been, because the colored people could get in the hospital if they had the money to pay — but they didn’t have a dime.

“At that time, it was in the, well, I started the laboratory in the Flat Iron building because there were physicians there who gave me work to do. I moved to the Haywood building with Dr. Ingrathaw and after she had to retire, the firm she was with, other doctors from that office wanted the whole office, so I moved farther down the hall in the Haywood building, and then I moved to the Arcade building. Then war was declared and the government took over the Arcade building for the war effort and then I moved up to the Weaver building, and there I stayed until 1962.”

Dr. Mary Frances (Polly) Shuford
(b. 1897)

Jan 12, 1975 interview
Southern Highlands Research Center
Louis D. Silveri Oral History Collection,
D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections,
University of North Carolina at Asheville

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