Pi Beta Phi Health Care Program: Page 2

Higinbotham’s efforts received a tremendous boost when, in 1922, the fraternity opened its much-anticipated rural public health clinic--dubbed the Jennie Nicol Memorial Health Center in honor of Pi Beta Phi founder Jennie Nicol--in a renovated cottage on the Settlement School grounds. From the clinic, Higinbotham provided a variety of medical services to Gatlinburg residents and Settlement School students: physical examinations, inoculations, first aid to the injured, and free clothing and medical supplies for those in need. The JNMHC also provided her with a platform from which to educate her new neighbors about the benefits of personal hygiene and preventative health care. By the time Higinbotham resigned her position in 1926, Gatlinburg residents, as well as people from as far away as Sevierville, had grown accustomed to looking to the JNMHC in times of medical crisis. Settlement School alumnae Lucinda Oakley Ogle perhaps spoke for all Gatlinburg residents when she stated that “Miss Phyllis . . . [was] a God-send for the mountain people.”

Following Higinbotham’s resignation, the settlement school saw several nurses come and go in rapid succession. It was not, in fact, until 1935 that Pi Beta Phi acquired the long-term services of Illinois native Marjorie Chalmers, a dedicated nurse (although not a Pi Phi) who would preside over the settlement school health program for the next thirty years.

Unlike Higinbotham, Chalmers had an easier time locating and treating her patients. Possessed of a car, and of a rather profound sense of daring, “Miz Marjorie” spent countless days and nights clattering and bumping along over the region’s poor roads, doing her best to dodge rocks and stumps, and to avoid tumbling over the occasional precipice. Fortunately for her, Gatlinburg mechanics made a priority of repairing her cars. “The boys at the garage watched over these cars with a very personal interest,” she wrote in her autobiography Better I Stay, “for no one knew when they might carry them or one of their folk on a fast emergency trip.”

It was, incidentally, during Chalmer’s tenure that the settlement school health care program realized its primary objective: convincing Gatlinburg residents to abandon their reliance on folk remedies and purely curative care, and instead move towards a reliance on preventative measures such as inoculations and good personal hygiene. Where once, new and expectant mothers sought the advice of “Granny Women” (midwives) as it regarded birth and infant care, they now brought their concerns to the JNMHC; where once, fearful parents refused to allow their children to receive inoculations, they now lined their youngsters up at the JNMHC on appointed days. Furthermore, in most cases, children born with birth defects received the treatment so often denied them in the pre-Pi Beta Phi days. And rare was the child who, known to the settlement school staff, went long without receiving eye and ear examinations (and corrective work or glasses in the event that they were needed). So improved were Gatlinburg children’s hygiene standards, in fact, that they regularly took top honors in Sevier County’s “Blue Ribbon Day,” personal health and hygiene program.

Like all good things, however, the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School’s Health Program eventually outlived its usefulness. Sevier County took over financial responsibility for public health in Gatlinburg in 1965, relieving the fraternity of the need to provide further funding and enabling Nurse Chalmers to embark on a well-deserved retirement. In the end, the program had succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations, garnering accolades from state health officials and Gatlinburg residents alike. Truly, it was one of the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School’s greatest achievements.

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Baby Margaret being treated for club foot

Grace Ogle with Quentin

Tennessee Hookworm Commission, circa 1915

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