By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
From its beginnings as a rough and tumble coal mining community, Birmingham has grown into a polished medical community nationally known for its work to advance medical knowledge.
A new book by local author and reporter Lynn Edge, “From Steel Mills to Stethoscopes: A History of the Birmingham Medical Profession,” recounts that transformation.
“I was really surprised by how intertwined this state was and how it all worked together to create this medical giant,” Edge said. “I tried to write the book from looking at the history of the area as the backdrop to the story of the medicine of the area.”
According to Edge, the book, published in November 2020, has been the largest undertaking of her career as a journalist and author.
A Samford University graduate, she began her writing career in 1968 as a reporter for The Birmingham News. She earned an Associated Press news writing award for her coverage of a sniper shooting in Bessemer.
She went on to become religion editor before transitioning into freelance work for magazines and newspapers across the country. Edge also has authored several books and edited a number for other writers.
The vast amount of research conducted to write this book opened Edge’s eyes to a world within Birmingham that she had only experienced from one side, as a patient.
“I have used their services, I’ve been in their hospitals more times than I care to admit, so I knew some of the inner workings but never delved as deeply as I went into it when I started researching this book,” Edge said.
Stories From the Past
The industry is in many ways a product of its environment.
“Had Red Mountain not contained everything to make steel, there would never have been a steel industry and doctors would never have come to treat ailments from the steel industry,” Edge said. “I tried to set it against the history of what was going on in the city and county that caused these medical advancements to happen.”
Throughout the book, Edge recounts the history of the landscape of Birmingham, its people and how the medical community – built to help humanity live and thrive – was influenced by that history.
“One of the things about writing the book that was sometimes frustrating was that I would get up in the morning and say, ‘Today I’ve got to look up the first liver transplant,’” Edge said. “I would start down that path and find out that there were 16 little roads that went off of it that I needed to stop and research before I finished up that journey.”
Experienced With Pandemics
In the early years of a formulated medical community, Birmingham doctors were focused on treating deadly epidemics such as cholera, typhus and the 1918 Spanish flu, finding that each iteration brought its own quarantines and, on occasion, business shutdowns.
“I also found it very interesting that in some of the early coverage of the yellow fever epidemic, some of the doctors were saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. Only a few people are going to get it,’” she said.
Edge noticed similarities in the way Birmingham and the United States as a whole reacted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I thought, we’ve heard this, and we should have learned from the yellow fever epidemic,” Edge said.
Women Claimed Ground
She was surprised by the role of female physicians in the Birmingham medical community, which drummed up many open-ended questions.
“I did find a lot of that interacting interesting, how women were ignored yet they were doctors,” she said. What was continually left out of the accounts were the reasons why women chose the area to practice, as there was, for much of its history, no substantial medical school in the area.
“I certainly don’t think it would be a very welcoming community for women,” she said.
There were female physicians who made headlines in the area.
One of the city’s first female doctors was Dr. Annie May Robinson of Maryland.
She started her Birmingham-based obstetrics practice in about 1907 and lent her time as a house physician for the Salvation Army’s Rescue Home.
In addition to her work in the medical community, she was documented as one of Birmingham’s most outspoken suffragists.
In addition, Birmingham was home to Dr. Alice McNeal, one of the first females in the nation to chair an academic anesthesia department. She became the first female anesthesiologist to practice in Alabama in 1946, when she accepted a position as assistant professor of surgery and chief of the surgery department’s anesthesia division at the hospital of the Medical College of Alabama. She held the position until 1961.
Big Moments in History
One of the most interesting and fulfilling aspects of the process for Edge was having the chance to delve deeper into the medical community’s response to polarizing moments in history.
A hallmark of the research process for Edge was discovering what people in Birmingham were doing on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, and reactions to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
“They got a call at the church that said how ever many minutes they had to get out of the church.” Edge said. “Those five minutes have always fascinated me, so being able to delve into that time and find out what other people were doing in the city is probably one of the most rewarding things.”
Edge was able to interview someone who knew exactly where George Seibels, later to become mayor of Birmingham, was during those five minutes: attending church at the Cathedral Church of the Advent.
“Seibels rushed from the church in the direction of the noise and found himself, after covering fewer than five blocks, staring at what he would describe as the worst thing he had ever seen,” Edge writes.
Hillman Hospital and University Hospital were readying their ERs. University received 12 victims and Hillman, 19.
Dr. Holt McDowell of Hillman Hospital and his fellow physicians set about to treat the 15 people that could be saved, while a fellow doctor oversaw a temporary morgue for those who were killed.
It was one of a number of incidents in the early 60s that brought victims of racial violence into Birmingham ERs.
Just days after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a local doctor took down signs segregating restrooms in his office and a wave of integration followed in medical facilities and hospitals throughout the city.
Throughout the book, there are plenty of surprises and discoveries to be found as Edge recounts major historical events and occurrences, as well as great strides in technology, research and treatment.
“This whole state is intertwined, even though Jefferson county and Birmingham are probably the center of medical research,” Edge said.
Signed copies of the book are currently available at Alabama Booksmith.