She wouldn't take 'no' for an answer.
A pioneering physician leaves a legacy of broken barriers.
by Kathleen Kearns
'You see what a life I lead," her father told her. "I'm not the daddy I should be. This is the last thing in the world you want to do." For her, he was exactly the thing she wanted to be. The first thing, the only thing.
Maybe Charles Baynes Wilkerson Sr. (class of 1904) let his little daughter tag along on a few too many of his house calls. By the time his two sons followed him into doctoring, Annie Louise already had a bachelor's in medicine (class of '36), and her MD, and she had taken up residence — not just in the physician's sense but as in living there — at Rex Hospital in Raleigh.
For a girl born in Apex in 1914, it was an unusual, even radical, ambition to want to be a doctor at the age when one starts to talk. What she saw on her father's horse-and-buggy rounds only made her more set on a medical career. Charles Wilkerson worried that it would deprive her of marriage and a family life, but when he saw she wouldn't back down, he let her have her way.
He sent her to Duke for two years — Carolina in those days would accept women only as juniors — and then on to his alma mater. Long before she got to Chapel Hill, the four-year medical program he'd studied in had been abandoned, and all she could get was the two-year course for a bachelor's.
Three other women were among the 27 students who graduated from UNC's bachelor's medical program that year. Like Wilkerson, Laura Ross (later Venning) '34 and Marina Henry (later Moses) '34, both deceased, went on to practice medicine; Lottie Lane Joyner '36 married Marina Henry's brother and taught high school biology and chemistry.
Wilkerson would become a legend in Raleigh. Though fate occasionally intervened on her behalf, she cleared her path by her own sweat and determination, her willingness to devote herself totally to medicine, and by resisting discrimination — gender and racial. In several interviews before she died on Sept. 14 at age 91, she looked back on what she overcame.
Her first baby, a namesake
Some on the School of Medicine faculty at the time didn't support women students; Dr. Isaac Hall Manning (class of 1895), then dean, did. He advised Wilkerson that if she took psychology she could be admitted to the medical program. She completed that and began the program.
The male students, Wilkerson said, treated her just fine.
"I cannot say one word except I was one of them and stayed one of them as long as I was in it," she said. If she went out with a male student for a meal or the evening, she paid her way and he paid his. She didn't consider it fair that other students should spend money on her that their parents were providing for tuition. "If they told a dirty joke, that was fine," she said. "Some of the girls didn't like it though."
Her best friend at Carolina, Joyce Killinsworth (later Brown) '35, gave her a nickname, Wilkie. And her father supplemented her studies by taking her to his Raleigh office on Sunday mornings.
"One morning a fellow got hit with a brick," Wilkerson recalled. "And I looked at that and saw his brain going back and forth, and I almost fainted. I told Daddy, I said, 'I feel funny.' He says, 'Sit down over there.' " The patient recovered, and so did Wilkerson. When she was 20 and still an undergraduate at Carolina, her father took her to see a patient on Perry Creek Road near Raleigh. He stood by as she delivered her first baby, a girl whom the parents named Annie Louise Wilkerson Horton.
To complete her medical degree, Wilkerson wanted to go to the University of Pennsylvania and become a surgeon like her uncle Thaddeus Earl Wilkerson '12. Until his death when she was a young teenager, he had mentored her, and he had gone to Penn. Her father didn't want her to go out of state.
She tried Duke. "I saw a man on the committee, and he says, 'Young lady, don't you know there's no place in medicine for a woman?' I said, 'Well, you and I disagree to begin with, because I think there is and you think there's not. I'm sorry I bothered you. I'm sorry I've taken up your time. Good day.' "
She tried Penn. "A girl in my class, her father finished at Penn, and she got in and I didn't. So then Dr. Isaac Hall Manning called me and informed me that I had not done what he said to do and that was to take a letter and go to Philadelphia for a personal interview. But my dad didn't think it was necessary."
Through a contact Manning made for her, she finally was admitted to the Medical College of Virginia. As at Carolina, Wilkerson was one of four women in her class in Richmond, though this class was bigger, with 76 students. She remembers doing better each year of her training than she had the year before. When she graduated with her MD in 1938, she said, there was nobody happier than her father.
She gave him back the checkbook he'd given her. "I said, 'If I can't make it from now on, you and I both have failed.' And from that day to this, I've been on my own."
She went home to Raleigh, where the family had lived since she was 6. She became, it is believed, only the third woman to practice there. She was 24, the youngest doctor in town. She landed an internship, though not without difficulty, at Rex Hospital, where her father practiced.
The summer of 1937, before she started her senior year at Medical College of Virginia, she'd told the Rex administrator she wanted to work there. "And the administrator told me that I could work there, and I had to buy my own uniforms and not to feel that I was going to be an intern because I wasn't. Raleigh wasn't ready for one. Because I was a woman. So I said, 'All I want to do is just to be able to do something.' "
Something outside her control helped her as she leaned against the stubborn door of Rex.
'You're not going anywhere'
Three days after Wilkerson started working that summer, Rex moved from its old location on South Street into a new building on St. Mary's Street. To prepare, the hospital had postponed many procedures, and once the move was made, there was lots of catching up to do.
Suddenly they needed her.
"Well, I lived at Rex Hospital," Wilkerson recalled. "I was doing a little bit of everything, and most of the time I was staying in the operating room assisting, because they'd put off elective surgery, and so they were just doing one right behind the other. And if anything came of it, like an appendix or something, they'd send me to go work it up and then bring it to the operating room. So then I was accepted."
Seeing all she had to offer, Rex's chief surgeon, Henry Turner, asked her what she planned to do once she finished her medical degree.
"I said, 'Well, I was told I couldn't come back to Rex.' He said, 'You put in an application.' So I put in an application to come to Rex as an intern and got return mail: accepted."
The summer of 1938, she became Rex's first female intern, working for free, and the following year she became the hospital's first female resident. Those years weren't easy — she slept in the delivery suite because there were no sleeping quarters for women who were doctors.
During her internship, though, she modified her dream of becoming a surgeon. That ground was too hard to break.
"I realized that there were not enough women in surgery and that I would not be able to do what I wanted to do. But in doing OB and GYN, I would be able to, so I decided to do OB-GYN. And that way I got my love for surgery and delivered babies, too."
She originally planned to go to New York Lying-In Hospital for her residency, but when an epidemic of diarrhea hit Raleigh's children, Rex told her, "You're not going anywhere. You're going to stay right here."
A war, an outbreak, a stand
As if Wilkerson didn't have enough to do, World War II broke out at the same time her father became sick. Once she finished her residency at Rex, she joined his practice to help him out. She worked with him from 1940 until his death in 1944.
With many of Raleigh's male physicians called away for military service, she worked around-the-clock shifts at Rex, obstetrics during the day and pediatrics at night.
"I was practically the only one here during the war, which like to kill me from 1942 to 1946. I'd go a whole week and not even take off my clothes except to go from scrub clothes to street clothes." Fate had nudged her again, and she responded to the opportunity with everything she had.
She worked in the obstetrics clinics, the well-baby clinics and the gynecology clinics at Rex and also, starting in 1941, at St. Agnes Hospital. In those years of racial segregation, Rex served Raleigh's white population and St. Agnes its African-Americans. Facilities at St. Agnes were very poor.
"No screens in the windows, no air conditioning, no nothing," she recalled. "You just sweltered, just — swish — fanned flies."
The work at St. Agnes was dropped in her lap because of the shortage of physicians during the war; taking it showed her commitment to caring for everybody equally. "It makes no difference what color, creed, anything else. You're treating a life. But a lot of people don't realize that.
"During the war, there wasn't a colored person or a white person hardly who didn't know who I was. And I could go anywhere, in the darkest alley or anything else, and not worry, because they knew I was there for their sake and would look after them if I could."
Wilkerson's herculean efforts during the war gained her the respect of her patients and hospital administrators alike. In 1948, during a polio epidemic so severe that Rex's halls were lined with iron lungs, the hospital made her chief of staff. Over the next several years, she became even more of a force in the local medical community. In 1950, she opened her own practice in a building she built and later shared with her two brothers, Charles B. Wilkerson Jr. '41, an internist, and Louis R. Wilkerson '47, who joined her OB-GYN practice. Their niece, gynecologist Mary Susan Fulghum '67, would join them in 1976.
In 1954, Wilkerson was elected president of the Wake County Medical Society. And when St. Agnes closed and Wake Memorial (now WakeMed) opened in 1961, she became the new hospital's first chief of staff, most likely because she was almost single-handedly responsible for convincing Raleigh's white doctors to practice there.
Though the new facility was the city's first integrated hospital, it initially was perceived as a facility for black patients and poor patients. It also was a long drive from white physicians' Rex-based practices. Jack Willis, a former administrator at Rex Hospital, remembered that Raleigh's white medical community resisted the idea of integrating medical care.
"When Wake was first started, the medical community was not supporting it whatsoever, except Dr. [George] Debnam and the black doctors," Willis said in a 2002 interview. "The clinics were there, but there were no whites. There was an impasse, and Dr. Annie Louise Wilkerson came to see Joe Barnes [then Rex's chief administrator] and I one day. She was going to take the lead in breaking this impasse, and of course, her family had always been Rex. Her father had practiced at Rex. Her brother, so on and so forth. They were very, very Rex.
"But she took the leadership role, and she went out there, and she worked in the clinics, and she put the patients in the hospital, and she put the pressure on other physicians to come, and when Annie Louise Wilkerson puts the pressure on you, you kind of jump up and listen to her.
"For her to say she was going out there, I think was one of the greatest things that ever happened in Raleigh. I don't know who else would've done it if she hadn't done it."
Throughout her career, Wilkerson took a leadership role on numerous Raleigh boards and service agencies. In 1982, apparently to her bemusement, she was named honorary chair of the N.C. Debutante Ball of the Terpsichorean Club, then considered the Raleigh social event. "I didn't even make my own debut," she told a reporter at the time, "even though my sister did, because back then, I had my mind on becoming a doctor."
The same year she led the ball, Wilkerson injured her knee and decided, at age 68, that it was time to cut back on her workload. She retired from Wake but continued to practice at Rex and in private practice until 1993, when she and her OB-GYN brother Louis retired on the same day.
University trustee Jean Almand Kitchin '70 was a scrub nurse in the labor-and-delivery department at Rex in the summer of 1966.
"She and Louis delivered many babies there," Kitchin recalled. "They were backbones of the medical community, just revered." Even then, almost 30 years after Wilkerson became Rex's first woman intern, she was the only female physician at the hospital, Kitchin said.
"Our male counterparts thought it was a male profession, though Dr. Wilkerson did have her brother, and working with him was a source of collegiality. She was very, very professional and competent, such a pioneer. The respect for the family, her father and brothers, probably helped her initially, but her degree of professionalism — she was just considered one of the guys."
To relax from her work, Wilkerson bought a North Raleigh farm in 1953. She named it AWL's Haven and spent many an hour unwinding by doing wiring, plumbing and farm chores. She raised beef cattle and kept horses, but she continued to live in the family home in downtown Raleigh until her mother died in 1974. She moved into one of the apartments above her practice. Longtime friend Aida Epps lived in another of the apartments there, and in 1990 the pair moved out to the farm full time.
After she retired from active practice, she honored her alma mater by establishing two endowed professorships as planned gifts to the School of Medicine. One, in family medicine, will honor the memory of her father, Charles Baynes Wilkerson; the second, in OB-GYN, will be in her name.
Carolina honored her as well. "She was both a true pioneer in the practice of obstetrics and gynecology and a quiet warrior in the struggle for gender equality," said Stuart Bondurant '50, who was interim dean of the School of Medicine when he awarded her the school's Distinguished Service Award in 1997.
Last year she was awarded the state's highest civilian honor, the North Carolina Award; and a week before she died, she was among the first group inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame.
She received many other accolades — a hallway at her farmhouse is lined with plaques, citations and framed newspaper clippings. She was perhaps prouder still of the more than 8,000 babies, some multiple generations of the same family, that she brought into the world. She took great pleasure in having fulfilled her childhood dream.
"There were so few women," she reflected a few months before her death. "I pioneered for them, there's no doubt about that. I did a good job, too."
Kathleen Kearns is a freelance writer in Chapel Hill.
Carolina Alumni Review, November-December 2005