Doctoring in Paradise
By Dot Sparer
The luxurious Jekyll Island Club once offered the perfect winter getaway for America’s richest families. As their resident physicians, they selected a string of lucky Hopkins doctors.
or 30 glorious winters starting just before World War I, a string of hand-picked Johns Hopkins physicians traveled south to tiny Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia to tend to the ills and whims of 50 fabulously rich families. Jekyll, just seven miles long and 11/2 miles wide—was the most elite, most inaccessible private social club this country has ever known. The ultra-rich who vacationed there between 1886 and 1941—people with names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Morgan and Astor, representing about one-sixth of the world’s wealth—spent three months each year on Jekyll in luxurious seclusion. The doctors these tycoons selected to take care of their medical needs ate and drank at their tables, swam at their beach club and served as regulars in their golf and tennis games. Most of them—some 20 over the years—came from Johns Hopkins.
Jekyl (spelled with one L until 1929) was purchased in 1886 by 50 financial barons, lured by the promise of warm winters, abundant game and complete privacy. For the next 55 years, these captains of American industry sailed in every January on their yachts, with their families, maids and governesses (J. P. Morgan announced his arrival by firing off a small canon). In the beginning, during their three-month stay, they lived and relaxed in the 60-room Jekyll Island clubhouse, built with no amenity spared. They dined on the likes of wild turkey with oyster stuffing prepared by the chef from Delmonico’s. And over postprandial cigars they discussed such topics as the day’s skeet shooting. In the spring when the sand flies arrived, they cruised back north.
As the years passed, men with names like Macy, Gould, Goodyear and Pulitzer built their own “cottages” on the island—some were 8,000 square feet—to house their families, guests and servants. The largest of them, the Crane cottage, put up by the bathroom fixture mogul, had 17 bathrooms. But it was not their cottages that Jekyll Island club members cherished most. It was their privacy, a privacy bordering on secretiveness. No one was allowed to visit the island, and not one word was written about it between 1904 and 1941.
What the millionaires did not reckon with was illness. The inevitable need for a resident physician breached their wall of secrecy. With several suffering (and even dying) from heart disease and illnesses like smallpox, yellow fever and especially typhoid, club members went looking for the island’s first staff doctor in 1897. “It is no easy matter getting a physician for this place,” wrote Jekyll’s superintendent to its president. “One with a practice will not leave it, and one that is not good enough to get a practice in N.Y., we do not want here.”
Eventually, though, the group recruited its first series of doctors from New York’s Roosevelt Hospital. One of them, Roy McClure, was so popular that when he became a surgery resident at Hopkins in 1912, club officers wrote to Hopkins’ Chief of Surgery William Halsted (a frequent visitor to Jekyll), requesting that McClure be sent down again as staff doctor. From then on, Hopkins physicians became the treaters of choice for the richest men in America.
In 1915, when McClure left Hopkins, he turned the job of club physician over to Walter Dandy, a neurosurgery resident (and soon-to-be world-famous neurosurgeon) who stayed on for six successive winters. Years later, in a letter to Walter B. James, a Baltimore physician and member of the club, Dandy remembered longingly the “wonderful vacation Jekyll Island forces upon everyone who is fortunate enough to go there. I cannot tell you how much I have missed it and I am always trying to maneuver an opening so that I can again renew my old acquaintances and play around the wonderful golf course, swim and tennis.”
Jay McLean, also a surgery resident, was the third Hopkins doctor to spend a couple of seasons on the island. Then, in 1923, Warfield Firor entered the picture, and from then until the club closed in 1941 he was the club’s physician of choice every year except for one when he was otherwise occupied. Firor left a detailed record of his adventures as physician and friend to the group, and was eventually made an honorary member. From the moment he set foot on Jekyll, as a young surgery resident, he clearly thrived on the island’s pleasures. In a letter to Dandy on January 9, 1923, the young surgical resident wrote:
I want to thank you again for sending me down here. I’m just beginning to appreciate fully the value of such a trip. A vacation like this means a great deal to a fellow who has been living in Hopkins Hospital for eighteen months. . . . The golf lessons are a daily exercise, although I’ve not yet gone around the course.”
Twenty-three Years of Mogul Medicine
A series of medical masterstrokes made Firor an immediate hero on the island. The first occurred when the manager of the club developed jaundice and was sent up to Hopkins. Surgeon Richard Follis operated and found a tumor of the head of the pancreas, but chose not to share the news with the patient. Firor, however, noticing that the man was “terribly depressed and unhappy over the evasion,” wrote later that he “did what was out of order and told him precisely that he had a mass in the head of the pancreas, that it was probably malignant but could be benign. I explained to him that, if it was malignant, he’d live a year and a half; if benign, indefinitely.” The tumor turned out to be benign, and the grateful manager (who lived for many years) insisted Firor come back the next year.
But the event that really solidified his position, Firor remembered, occurred when a visitor to the club, who had come for a week of golfing, came down with what Firor recognized as syphilis of the central nervous system and acute syphilitic meningitis. Firor urged club officers to call the man’s wife to his bedside immediately. But a former professor of medicine at Columbia who was on the island examined the visitor and told Firor, “Oh young man, don’t be an alarmist. He just ate some bad tuna fish on the train coming down. He’ll be all right.” “I’m sorry Sir,” Firor replied, “I think he’ll be dead in 48 hours.” He was, and “the fact that I had outguessed the professor raised my stock with all those people.”
During the 17 winters he spent on Jekyll Island, Firor won the trust and goodwill of many of his celebrated patients. “A lot of these people had fashionable doctors in New York who really didn’t take care of them,” he wrote. “They would send for me to come up to New York and advise them. . . .In a way I was their family physician. The Sutherlands, the Brewsters, Lamonts, the Jennings family really said, ‘You’re our doctor.’ ”
Firor moved easily among the legendary tycoons and was frequently called upon to cure ills not found in any medical text. He became, for example, a favorite of Ruth Lorilar, the wealthy widowed daughter of railroad magnate James J. Hill, who made her Fifth Avenue apartment available to Firor whenever he was in New York. After her marriage to a crotchety 70-year-old, the dowager pleaded periodically with Firor to “come up and spend the weekend and take this squire off my hands, will you?” Firor was only too happy to agree to a weekend with them in their “huge castle” in Tuxedo Park.
One day Lorilar sent Firor an SOS announcing her husband was moving out. “He is furious. Come up right away.” Firor convinced the old man to change his plans because people “are going to think you’re just a disagreeable old SOB.” He then suggested a more socially acceptable way for the old man to get away from his wife. “I’ll arrange for you to come to Johns Hopkins Hospital as a patient. I’ll get nice nurses. You bring Ernest your valet.”
The plan was approved and, for the next five months, Lorilar’s obstreperous spouse lived as a boarder in Marburg 1. Since this was 1933, the depths of the Depression, Hospital Director “[Winford] Smith was delighted to have Marburg 126 filled.” As for the old squire, “He filled the room with whiskey and candy and lived like a prince. Everybody played up to him.” By the time he left the Hospital, he was ready to go back to his wife.
Arrival of the Infirmary
Besides earning the gratitude of the elite Jekyll Islanders for such extra attentions, Firor and his Hopkins colleagues also earned a bit of their largesse in the form of a paycheck. At first, only part-time faculty were allowed to keep the money the club paid for their services. Noted Firor: Being on part time, Dandy “was able to charge fees and was not very modest in doing so.” Later on, though, University trustees were persuaded to let club doctors keep what they earned. “This income was more than the salary I received as a full-time associate professor,” Firor wrote. A payroll ledger for 1938 shows his island wages as $100 a month plus board (about 35¢ per day) and lodging (15¢ per day).
By 1929, Firor was principal physician at the club, the confidant of its prosperous inhabitants, manager of the schedule of physicians arriving from Hopkins and ready for his own infirmary. When the Goodyear family donated a substantial two-story house, he turned the upstairs into an apartment for himself and his wife and added quarters for a full-time nurse. On the lower floor he made space for beds for patients and room “to store drugs and things. The infirmary filled a great need,” he recalled, especially during the influenza epidemic which swept through the club shortly after.
The ongoing Hopkins presence at the Jekyll Island club produced several windfalls for the School of Medicine and the Hospital. Firor remembered three different club members who announced to him at various times, “I’ve just given $100,000 to that place of yours.” Explained one: “We all go to Dr. Wilmer and we adore him…so we each chucked in $100,000 (a fortune today) toward the Wilmer Eye Institute.” To which Firor added, “Of course I had no hesitancy about asking them for money for my research, and had more offered me than I could use.”
By 1929, when the great financial Depression set in, a number of members of the Jekyll Island Club sadly decided that it would be prudent to withdraw from membership. Over the years, cottages fell into disrepair and membership dwindled. Finally, in 1942 the government ordered club members to leave for the duration of the war. They never came back. It was the end of an era for them and for Hopkins. Jekyll Island was acquired by the state of Georgia in 1947. In 1978, it was recognized as a national historic landmark. In 1986, exactly a century after the original members had constructed their opulent 60-room clubhouse, it was faithfully restored to its Victorian splendor. Today the building serves as an elegant resort hotel surrounded by some of the cottages and filled with echoes of the past. The infirmary is a bookstore in Jekyll Island’s historic district.