Saturday, February 25, 2012

Get Well

In April of 1945, the man who would become my mentor, Marcus W. Orr, was shot in the back in Germany in World War II. The bullet came from a German plane that strafed a company of American GIs as they were approaching an obscure town about thirty miles northwest of Munich known as Dachau. The bullet cut Dr. Orr’s spinal cord somewhere around the middle of his back. He retained the use of his arms, neck, and shoulders, but he would never walk again. He was treated for his wounds in Europe and, once his condition had been stabilized, was sent back to the States to a new hospital in Memphis, to further recuperate and to learn to live life as a paraplegic.

The new hospital where Dr. Orr was sent was Kennedy General Hospital, whose wartime history is documented in a fine 2007 dissertation by Paul W. White. Kennedy, which was named for James M. Kennedy (1853-1930), a lifetime Army medical man who once headed the Walter Reed General Hospital and who had no connection to Memphis whatsoever, opened in January of 1943; in two years it grew to be the largest Army hospital in the country, with a census that reached six thousand patients by the war’s end. It was built on a large parcel of land at the intersection of Park Avenue and Getwell, which, when construction on the hospital began, had been Shotwell. The name was changed in 1942 when a Mrs. M. E. Brown of Morvell, Arkansas, pointed out to the Memphis Press-Scimitar that Shotwell was a terrible name for a street bordering what was to be a hospital for injured soldiers; Mrs. Brown suggested Getwell instead, and so it became.

That Memphis was chosen as the site for the new military hospital was due in no small part to the efforts of Senator Kenneth McKellar, a Tennessee Democrat and Memphis resident who served in the U.S. Senate for over thirty-five years (1917-1953). But aside from McKellar’s influence, Memphis itself had much to offer the war department, with its transportation infrastructure consisting of roadways, railroad lines, the Mississippi River, and a municipal airport. In addition, Memphis was already a center of military activity: it was the site of a new quartermaster depot and two ordnance plants, as well as the site of the Second Army Headquarters and the Fourth Service Command.

As Dr. White tells us, the first wounded soldiers from overseas, veterans of fighting in the South Pacific, arrived at Kennedy in February of 1943—paraplegics and quadriplegics. They arrived by train, under cover of night, for fear of spies, according to a volunteer at the hospital. In July of that same year, the first prisoners of war, German and Italian, began being treated at Kennedy.

Kennedy was originally intended to be a regional hospital that treated all manner of wounds, injuries, and illnesses; the operative word was regional: Marcus Orr was shipped to Kennedy because his home state was neighboring Arkansas. But by war’s end, the hospital had evolved into a “center for research, evaluation, and specialization for psychiatric and penicillin medical care, as well as surgical procedures for neurological, thoracic, and orthopedic cases.”

Several themes emerge from Dr. White’s study; they are too numerous to list here, but a few are the acute local housing shortage for military personnel, especially nurses; the impact of segregation generally and the hurdles faced by the city’s black women in their effort to be useful to the war effort in particular; the close cooperation between the hospital, city officials, and the local population, made evident, for example, in the beautification of the hospital grounds; and Kennedy Hospital as much like a city in its own right. In Dr. White’s estimation, Kennedy was a success, as it fulfilled the medical purposes, and then some, for which it was intended.

In the course of describing the founding and operation of the hospital, Dr. White offers us perhaps accidental glimpses into the workaday world of Memphis in the 1940s. We hear from James French, for instance, who was a construction worker at Kennedy. French, who worked for Fisher Aircraft in Memphis, describes how he took the Normal streetcar, which ended near Highland, at which point a company truck picked him up and took him to the construction site. Highland was a gravel road south of Park in those days, and no bus or utility service went to the site. We hear too about the complaints of one Hugo Dixon—he who, with his wife, would give Memphis what is today the Dixon Gallery and Gardens—about the monkeys he found one day cavorting in his trees and yard. The hospital kept monkeys for research; a few of them escaped and decided to help themselves to the delightful grounds of the Dixons’ home, which sat just a half mile or so east of the hospital.

We also hear about James Jones, a patient at Kennedy who is remembered today as the author of From Here to Eternity. Jones’s last novel, Whistle, is an account of his experiences at the Memphis hospital.

Dr. White draws on archival sources such as the papers of Kenneth McKellar and Walter Chandler, who was the mayor of Memphis in the 1940s, as well as the correspondence files and annual reports of Kennedy General Hospital. Also in his bibliography are two articles by Michele Fagan on Kennedy General Hospital; the articles were published in 1992 and 1994 in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly.

Kennedy General Hospital became Kennedy VA Hospital in 1946. In 1967, a new VA hospital was built in that section of Memphis known today as the Medical Center, near the campus of the University of Tennessee Medical School. The land and the buildings that used to be Kennedy were transferred to Memphis State University for its South campus; most of the old hospital buildings were soon razed.

Dr. White ends his dissertation with a quotation from a Martha Walker Bunn, who worked at Kennedy in 1945. “I never drive past the University of Memphis South campus that I don’t see those paraplegics under the old oak trees facing Park Avenue.” I imagine that one of those paraplegics was Marcus W. Orr.

Dr. White’s dissertation, which is titled “Kennedy General Hospital: Its Impact on Memphis in War and Peace,” was completed in 2007 at the University of Memphis under the direction of Dr. Charles W. Crawford. For a post on another dissertation supervised by Dr. Crawford, see my entry on Communism in Memphis.


  1. Hello Paul,

    Thank you so much for writing about my uncle, Marcus W. Orr! My name is David Orr, Jr., and I live in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I appreciate your sharing your thoughts about your experience as his student. I'd love to communicate with you more about this!

  2. Dear David,
    Thanks so much for your message. Let me know if you see this. I am not very active on this blog anymore. I'd love to talk to you about your uncle.