- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Dr. Charles Pelphrey turned 100 on April 16.
The physician’s centenary birthday was not much noticed here in Austin. He retired in 1981, and a few years ago, he moved to a quiet suburb of San Antonio to live with his daughter.
Yet, if anyone should be remembered by Austin, it is this man — who almost singlehandedly changed health care in this city.
For instance, Pelphrey introduced blood banking to Austin. Also Pap smears. And Rh tests for pregnant women. And — oh, yes — he spearheaded mass inoculations with the Sabin polio vaccine in the early 1960s.
Additionally, he helped lead the Travis County Medical Society and the American Cancer Society of Austin, where he spent years educating a skeptical public about the links between smoking and cancer.
He helped launch Medical Arts Square near then-new St. David’s Hospital, northeast of the University of Texas campus. This 1950s-era complex survives in an essentially untouched condition on Medical Arts Boulevard.
There, Pelphrey founded Clinical Pathology Laboratories, one of the largest such private endeavors in the country, which was bought for $300 million by Sonic Healthcare of Sydney, Australia, in 2005. He received nothing from the transaction, however, since he had sold his stock when he retired.
On May 1, 1948, he and a partner opened the lab, which investigated blood, tissues or other human matter, in a 400-square foot apartment at 1709 San Antonio St. At the time, the city’s major hospitals did not operate their own pathology labs. If doctors wanted a test, they did it themselves.
“He was a world-class pathologist,” says Jim Johnson, who worked at CPL from 1959 until he retired in the 1990s. “His record is unmatched in the state of Texas. Everybody who lives in Austin or who has ever lived in Austin since he arrived has benefited from his work.”
Pelphrey sits almost motionless in a sun-washed room at the back of his daughter’s house. He smiles but speaks almost not at all.
Luckily, his two children, the Rev. Brendan Pelphrey, 70, a Greek Orthodox priest, and Barbara Pelphrey Morse, 68, an educator, are there with her husband, Michael Morse, 68, and his former employee, Johnson, 81, a lively group bent on storytelling.
Also, in a gesture that all families should note, he wrote a book. In 2005, the doctor self-published “Reflections: The Pulse of an Era.” It starts a little slowly, because he naturally includes a good deal of background and genealogy. But once the son of Plainview, on the Llano Estacado, reaches Austin, where his father opened Pelphrey Mortuary in the 1920s, the story takes off.
The family lived in a stucco house in South Austin, and young Charles attended Fulmore School. Then, they moved to Old Enfield, and he transferred to Pease School. Coming from San Antonio, a comparatively much bigger city, Austin felt like a small country town to Charles Pelphrey and his brother, J.D. Pelphrey.
His circumspect father’s mortuary was in a big mansion — since demolished — at Lavaca and West 12th streets across from the surviving First United Methodist Church. During the Depression, some of the family’s clients paid in livestock. The future doctor eagerly helped his father.
“I often drove the pallbearer’s car, washed the cars, mowed the lawns, sewed grave-linings and learned the art of crushed silk,” he writes. “I have no idea when I began to assist in the preparation or embalming room. Dad even formulated our own embalming fluid.”
His parents declared bankruptcy, however, just as Pelphrey graduated from Austin High School. They moved out into the country near what is now the intersection of North Lamar Boulevard and U.S. 183. Pelphrey worked for a contractor, a telegram company, a periodical distribution company, a boardinghouse and the Meeks-Hyltin Funeral Home.
In those days, hearses from competing funeral homes often raced to reach a deceased person first. In an unforgettable episode, a group of vehicles led by Charles B. Cook of Cook Funeral Home headed to New London in East Texas, where almost 300 students and teachers died in a natural gas explosion on March 18, 1938.
Pelphrey attended the University of Texas and chronicled the rise of the UT Tower in photographs. He became well-known in his circles for procuring and embalming cats for anatomy class.
Meanwhile, he dated Elvira Hermann, whom he would later marry.
While preparing for medical school, Pelphrey worked at Brackenridge Hospital as an orderly. He lived nearby inside a dorm at the once-condemned former home of the Institute for the Blind, now known as the Arno Nowotny Building.
He and his roommate, Clyde Halley, skipped the graduation ceremonies to apply in person for admission to the Baylor School of Medicine in Dallas. But a problem stood in the way: money. All through his medical education, Pelphrey was forced to ask well-established Austinites for gifts or loans. Clearly, however, they saw him as a smart investment.
“Medical school started Sept. 1, 1940,” Pelphrey writes. “And I arrived with all of $25 in my pocket. Some of us pledged the Phi Rho Sigma fraternity, which supplied a place to live in their large house. I couldn’t tell you just where the money came for living expenses, but I made several hitch-hiking trips back to Austin to hit up everyone I knew for money.”
The summer after his sophomore year at medical school, Pelphrey worked at Camp Swift, near Bastrop, and tended to country kids who lived nowhere near a clinic. Back in the Dallas-Fort Worth, he worked at Baylor, St. Paul’s, Methodist and Parkland hospitals. There he was sent out to homes to deliver babies with his roommate, H.F. Byrd. The friends joined a V-12 Navy unit in Dallas during World War II, but were told to keep studying.
Meanwhile, Elvira was working for the federal government in Washington, D.C., and in Cuba. The couple married on Nov. 9, 1943, even though several members of the wedding party were late because of a burnt-out railroad bridge.
That year, Pelphrey saw penicillin administered for the first time. Almost all supplies of the astoundingly effective medication were reserved for the military, but some was found for Elvira’s father, who was severely injured in an accident at Austin’s Calcasieu Lumber Co.
It wasn’t the last time that Pelphrey was near to the forefront of medical advances.
Some of what he learned and later introduced to Austin came from Dr. Joseph M. Hill, the brilliant chief of pathology at Baylor Hospital in Dallas, who had become interested in the still new field of blood banking. Hill also had been studying the blood factor called Rh (because it was first identified in rhesus monkeys). If a mother’s blood is Rh-positive and her unborn child’s is Rh-negative, or vice versa, serious complications can result. Hill found a way to protect them by injecting a series of small amounts of Rh-positive red cells. That breakthrough was duplicated around the world.
Around this time, Pelphrey also learned about Pap smears, in which single cells from the uterine cervix are studied to detect pre-cancer or cancer. It was named for the method’s discoverer, Dr. George Papanicolaou. During the 1960s, Pelphrey helped lead the public health drive to persuade Austin women to take the test.
Before he returned to Austin, the Navy paid for his continued study of pathology, and he oversaw the laboratory at the Naval hospital at Camp Pendleton, in California. In 1948, he was discharged from the Navy and accepted an invitation to start a pathology lab in Austin with Dr. S.W. Bohls. Quickly, however, Pelphrey took over all the studies, and eventually he and other doctors bought Bohls out. Pelphrey was known even then as a perfectionist.
“Most doctors scan a couple of slides,” Johnson says. “If he was suspicious there might be some pathology, he’d spend the rest of his day doing slides.”
Also that year, he teamed up with the formidable Sister Basil, who ran Seton Hospital with an eagle eye and a brigade of internal reporters.
“She knew what she wanted, said what she meant, and meant what she said,” Pelphrey writes. “She telephoned several physicians whose quality of practice she questioned, and ‘disinvited’ them from admitting patients to Seton. I found her no-nonsense method of business refreshing and we got along quite well.”
By the end of the decade, he was handling tests made in his private lab as well as well as ones ordered by Brackenridge, Seton and St. David’s hospitals. Along the way, Pelphrey invented his own method of staining test slides, and he predicted the existence of HPV (human papilloma virus) long before it was discovered.
MORE HISTORY: Ninety years of caring and health care at St. David’s
Still, he wanted more training, so he linked up with another brilliant pathologist, Dr. Arthur Purdy Stout, in New York City. Among other things, he brought Purdy’s pioneering antismoking campaign to Austin.
In 1951, he led the charge to open the city’s first blood bank to serve all the hospitals in the city. Also by the early 1950s, he was conducting autopsies on humans and on UT’s experimental monkeys.
In the early 1960s, Pelphrey helped head the team that administered the Sabin polio vaccine in great quantities. One anecdote about the mass inoculations inside the Barrens Drug Center at Airport Boulevard and U.S. 290 reveals a bit about the doctor’s personality.
“I sent a volunteer to bring back a number of doses, but she returned empty-handed, saying the doctor in charge did not want to give up any of his vaccine,” he writes. “I reacted loudly: ‘I didn’t ask for his consultation; I gave an order!’”
His children remember
In his memoir, Pelphrey tells many more tales about his medical colleagues, some laudatory, but others less so, including ones about a clueless clinician he calls “Junior,” and others about a foul-mouthed, conniving physician he labels “Dr. X.”
His children tell wonderful stories, too, but they are mostly warm and sweet.
The Rev. Pelphrey remembers his father’s working rhythms at their house on Shoal Creek Boulevard.
“He was out of the house by 7 a.m. and in by 7:30 p.m. dinner,” he says. “Then meetings, or he would dictate.”
The Rev. Pelphrey witnessed his first autopsy at age 8 or 9. His father often acted as a forensic pathologist, since the city didn’t employ one.
“I remember this murder to which we went at night,” he says. “The sheriff was there. The man had been fishing. Dad said it was a right-handed attacker. He would have been 6 foot, 2 inches because of the angle of the wound. He fought off the attacker from the evidence of the wounds on his arms and hands.”
At age 17, the younger Pelphrey applied for a job at Seton. He wanted to work in surgery, but there were no openings, so he ended up in his dad’s lab, where he received training in phlebotomy.
“I looked young because I was young,” he recalls. “I’d go in to draw blood, and the patient would say, ‘Can they send a grown-up?’”
The Rev. Pelphrey graduated from UT and then studied medicine for a year at Vanderbilt University. He moved over to philosophy, then theology. He was raised Lutheran, but his studies of the early Christian church led him to Orthodoxy. He credits his family’s emphasis on education.
“We were reading newspapers when other kids were just learning their alphabets,” he says. “One thing that doesn’t get mentioned often: Dad made house calls, (and) he’d sometimes take us along. There was a lot of time spent saving people, a real care for patients that he wasn’t paid for.”
Barbara Pelphrey Morse remembers a “fabulous childhood.”
The adult education teacher always said she was going to be a pathologist when she grew up, but didn’t make it as far as medical school. She became a German teacher and later a cosmetologist. She took dance classes instead of gym because of her asthma, and her mom was always available if she had an attack.
“Mom and Dad always worked as a team,” she says. “They provided us with a stable home life filled with love. Growing up, we witnessed their daily examples of kindness and generosity to others, like caring for both sets of grandparents and others. Their uncompromising determination to serve God, country, family and society was part of our daily lives.”
As for her father, she always looked up to him.
“I was impressed by his professionalism, his efficiency and his vocabulary,” she says. “I’d listen in when he was dictating autopsies. I thought the word ‘pancreas’ was funny.”
Morse did get a chance to learn a bit about pathology at an early age.
“I loved it when Dad showed me tissue sectioning,” she says. “I learned how to make slides, put tissue sections in a wax block, then use a microtome to make very thin slices of tissue, affix a slice to a slide and stain to show contrast in the sample.”
Pelphrey’s work, and that of his followers, touched everyone.
“If you were born, lived or died in Travis County,” Elvira Pelphrey, who died in 2012, used to tell her children, “you went through that lab at some point.”