Friday, March 26, 2010

The Doctors

Dr. Milton Douglas Quigless, Sr.          (select to see larger image)         Dr. Charles DeWitt Watts

How much difference can one person make? Dr. Milton Douglas Quigless defied the odds and the conventions of his time to make medical care available to African Americans in Edgecombe County.

In 1936, just out of medical school, he arrived in the small town of Tarboro with $7 in his pocket and a desire to care for people. The need was certainly there. Tarboro’s only hospital was restricted to whites. Local white doctors did not usually treat African Americans, and the town’s only black physician had died years earlier. 

Denied privileges at the hospital, Dr. Quigless set up an office in an abandoned fish market. He struggled to provide adequate care and perform surgery, not only in his meager office but also in patients’ homes. Many were tenant farmers with no electricity and poor sanitary conditions that bred typhoid, dysentery and tuberculosis. To give the best care possible, Quigless consulted with specialists around the state. And, as most country doctors did in the days before penicillin, he improvised and occasionally used folk medical treatments he’d learned.

But local prejudices and segregation laws continued to frustrate Quigless.

In 1947, with his life savings and a $37,000 loan, he purchased and converted his office building into a 25-bed clinic. “All the patients I’d been seeing out in the country, a lot of them died, you know, before I built the place here,” he recalled. “From the day I started, it was filled up.”

The Quigless Hospital developed an excellent reputation. During the 1950s, white patients began to come for treatment, too. Breaking tradition with most Southern hospitals of that time, Quigless provided one door and one waiting room for all patients, white and black.

In 1974, the hospital closed when Dr. Quigless joined the staff of the new Edgecombe County General Hospital and moved his patients there. But he maintained an office in the old hospital until shortly before his death in 1997. Today his son, Dr. Milton Quigless, Jr., is a well-known surgeon in Raleigh, keeping the Quigless name very much a part of North Carolina health care.

Dr. Charles DeWitt Watts was born in 1917. He was an African-American physician, surgeon, and activist for the poor.

From Atlanta, Georgia, Charles DeWitt Watts received a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College in 1939. He received his medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in 1943 and completed his surgical residency in 1949 at the former Freedman's Hospital, under the tutelage of Dr. Charles Drew, who was the department head. From 1948 to 1950, Dr. Watts served as instructor of surgery at Howard. Dr. Watts and his wife Constance Merrick Watts left Howard in 1950 and moved to her home town of Durham.

He set up a private practice and became the director of student health at North Carolina Central University. He later was vice president and medical director for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. In 1965, Dr. Watts became chief of surgery at the city's 150-bed Lincoln Hospital, one of the few American hospitals then that granted surgical privileges to black doctors. He also helped prepare the hospital's interns and residents for board certification. When Lincoln Hospital was slated to be closed in the 1970s, Dr. Watts led the effort to turn it into a community health center serving people regardless of their income.

In a 1986 Washington Post interview, Dr. Watts noted that in 1950, two-thirds of the certified black surgeons in the country had been trained at Howard and influenced by Dr. Drew, who pioneered blood collection and plasma processing. "He wanted black doctors to go out and establish themselves around the country," Watts said of Drew. "He succeeded far beyond his dream. We can point them out across the country this goes to California and back again. It was a trailblazing effort that really succeeded." In 1992, his daughter, Deborah Chase Watts Hill, died.

During his career, Dr. Watts also was on the surgical staff at Durham Regional Hospital and an adjunct clinical professor of surgery at Duke University Medical School. Dr. Watts was a member of Howard's Board of Trustees for 19 years, before retiring in 1993. He was then elected a trustee emeritus. In 2002, the Duke School of Medicine created the Charles Watts Travel Award, which funds student and faculty travel to study culturally specific medical issues.

North Carolina's First African American Surgeon Dr. Charles DeWitt Watts died on Jul. 12, 2004 in Durham, North Carolina addition to his wife survivors includes two other children, Winifred A. Watts Hemphill of Atlanta and Charles D. Watts Jr. of Durham; and nine grandchildren.

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