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  • A Legacy of Leadership, Civic Responsibility and Ophthalmology: Arkansas’ Henry Family

    Many ophthalmology families claim legacy status. But Arkansas holds bragging rights to a family of eye, ear, nose, and throat (EENT) specialists/ophthalmologists that extend back to one of the nation’s early couples: Drs. Murphey and Louise McCammon Henry.

    See a slide show of Drs. Murphey and Louise McCammon Henry and their family.

    Arkansas continues to reap the benefits of this family of strong leaders, physicians, and ophthalmologists, with a few lawyers added to the stellar mix.

    Dr. Murphey Henry was born in 1900 in Mississippi, the son of a general practice physician. He graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1921 and was drafted into the U.S. Army in World War I. Following the war, he attended the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, where he met his lifelong love, Louise McCammon.

    Louise was known as a strong woman, when women made up fewer than 5% of all practicing physicians in the U.S., according to “The Fight for Women Doctors, Jeff Nilsson and Maude Radford Warren,” published in The Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 14, 2016). She graduated from Oglethorpe College of Atlanta. The couple graduated from University of Tennessee College of Medicine in 1928, chose internships in St. Louis. and were secretly married.

    At the time, Louise was the first woman intern at Deaconess Hospital in St. Louis. Murphey was offered an ophthalmology residency at Wills Eye Hospital, but it was revoked when the marriage was disclosed. In those times, Wills residents were expected to be single and to devote their lives and souls to residency. So, the couple found an ophthalmology residency with the EENT hospital in Washington, D.C. Louise was allowed to become a pediatric resident at the D.C. Children’s Hospital, since women were not accepted to ophthalmology residencies at the time.

    Murphey did ocular surgery early in the morning, but his co-resident wasn’t waking up to assist. Louise, turning the other’s somnolence to her advantage, would scrub in and assist her husband before her pediatric duties began. She also would join him at the EENT hospital, and while doing rounds, constantly absorb knowledge and skills.

    When the Great Depression hit, they found themselves both operating on mastoids, tonsils and performing aphakic cataract surgeries for the people of Fort Smith, Ark. Murphey was in the National Guard and a flight surgeon for the Air Force when World War II hit. He was activated and sent to bases in Laurel, Miss. and Fort Sill, Okla.

    For three years, Louise labored to keep their full-time practice open in Fort Smith. Civilians needed doctors, and many male physicians had been activated. The couple had two young sons, and each parent kept one child during this time of separation.

    Following the war’s end, the national ophthalmology board began administrating exams. Crediting her husband’s teaching, and after many years of hands-on experience in EENT, Louise passed the American Board of Ophthalmology in 1956. Murphey passed the board in 1957.

    In 1931, their son, Morriss, was born into this two-physician family. He attended Hendrix College and the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in 1955. He completed his residency in ophthalmology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear at Harvard Medical School 1956-1959, followed by serving as a captain in the U.S. Air Force and chief of Bitburg Eye Clinic in Germany from 1959 to 1961. During his time with the Air Force, he attended state-of-the-art meetings to learn more about a new Xenon laser being used successfully for diabetic retinopathy, as well as early intraocular implants following cataract surgery.

    Meeting Alice Walker

    One of Dr. Morriss Henry’s most memorable patients was a Georgia sharecropper’s daughter who had suffered an ocular injury from a BB gun as a child. This child, Alice Walker, was physically and mentally impacted the rest of her youth by a blind, “ugly” and painful eye. Her family raised $250 to visit a “real” doctor, who did nothing but hand her a bottle of drops and permanently haunt her by proclaiming, “Eyes are sympathetic. If one is blind, the other will likely become blind too.”

    Once thought a cute, outgoing girl, Walker was bullied and teased and became depressed and withdrawn, even suicidal. Fortunately, an older brother coaxed his sister into going to Boston about six years later, after he discovered the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. A biography of Alice Walker — yes, that Alice Walker of literary renown — describes what occurred.

    “At 9:20 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1958, Dr. Morriss Henry, an unassuming, Arkansas-reared ophthalmologist, performed an extracapsular cataract extraction on Alice’s right eye.”

    Morriss removed the white “glob” from Walker’s traumatized eye, allowing the 14-year-old to once again “raise her head” and to become “beautiful, whole and free.”

    Walker’s biographer, Evelyn C. White, spoke to Dr. Henry many years later: “These days, Morriss Henry can be found in his sunny, plant-filled office in Fayetteville, Arkansas. A courtly, soft-spoken man, Dr. Henry (also a lawyer who has served the Arkansas State Senate) is lauded throughout the region for his first-rate surgical skills.”

    Morriss recalled that Walker had aspirations of becoming a writer. Decades later, Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple,” would win a Pulitzer Prize for literature, making her the first Black woman to win the prize. She also became an activist promoting Black women’s art and politics.

    After establishing an ophthalmology practice in Fayetteville, Ark. in 1961, Morriss determined that the people of Arkansas should be provided Xenon laser treatment. He married Ann Rainwater in 1964, but their honeymoon was cut short when he found the Xenon laser had arrived. Morriss provided laser care to patients across the state until new lasers were developed with less retinal scarring.

    Dr. Moriss Henry also attended law school at the University of Arkansas part-time early in his practice years. Following their marriage, Ann agreed that they would both attend the University of Arkansas law school part-time while raising their three small children born 1965, 1966 and 1969. Morriss and Ann graduated with law degrees in 1971.

    Outside of medicine, advocacy has also proven a strong suit for the Henry family. Morriss Henry was elected county coroner in 1964, then was elected as an Arkansas state representative in 1966 and 1968. He ran and won Arkansas State Senator in 1970 and served as an Arkansas senator until 1984.

    By the time Morriss retired from the senate, he had served under Govs. Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton, Frank White and Bill Clinton again in his second term. He served as president of the Arkansas Medical Society in 1983.

    Morriss was also instrumental in the state’s purchase of 12,000 acres of prime wooded parklands in Northwest Arkansas, which has become the beautiful, natural Hobb’s State Park. During his senate career, he sponsored and passed bills creating the Emergency Medical Services, expanding Arkansas Education Television Network for Northwest Arkansas creating area health education centers and helped create the Arkansas State Medical Examiner’s Office. He and Ann gave to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) annually.

    Morriss, along with department chair, John P. Shock, MD, secured commitments of over $6.5 million to establish the Harvey and Bernice Jones Eye Institute in Little Rock, Ark., the only ophthalmology training program in the state. He also began conversations to help transform the Washington Regional Medical Center campus to a new academic home for UAMS Northwest.

    Ann Henry taught business law at the University of Arkansas for 23 years, became the associate dean of the Walton College of Business and was also elected chair of the campus faculty. She has served on many local and state boards, with many city and state improvements due to her skills and leadership, including an amazing new Fayetteville Public Library. Many of the power couple’s activities were done with their three children in tow, as they modeled leadership and civic responsibility.

    In order to keep the Fayetteville clinic open while Morriss was in legislative session, Morriss’ parents took turns taking the railroad from Fort Smith to Fayetteville to help keep his practice, open, alternating to cover their Fort Smith clinic. They provided care to train workers and were able to ride the trains free. They performed aphakic cataract surgery and knew how to precisely fit hard contact lenses. More than a few kitchen table myringotomies were performed, as well as hospital surgeries like mastoids and tonsils.

    Few EENT/ophthalmology practices in that time (or since) were mother, father and their son. Following the termination of a 40-year lease in Fort Smith, Murphey and Louise closed the west Arkansas clinic around 1970. Morriss added space to his Fayetteville office, and the three practiced together until the elder Henrys retired in 1984.

    Lifelong learners, they continued attending monthly CME programs to stay current, including the EENT meeting at the Palmer House in Chicago every year. At age 80, Dr. Murphey Henry even signed up for an H&R Block class so he could do his own taxes.

    The next generation of Henry ophthalmologists have furthered strong advocacy for Arkansas patients and medicine. A son, ophthalmologist Paul Henry, MD is married to Mary Jo Henry, MD, a radiologist. He served as president of the Arkansas Ophthalmological Society and is a graduate of the Academy’s Leadership Development Program, class of 2004. Paul and his father continued the Henry Eye Clinic until Dr. Morriss Henry retired at age 86.

    A daughter, ophthalmologist Katherine Henry Baltz, MD, has been an Academy councilor and president of the Arkansas Ophthalmological Society and on the board of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas and the Arkansas Lighthouse for the Blind. Kathy’s ophthalmologist husband, Tracy Baltz, MD, has served on the council of the Arkansas Medical Society and as president of the Arkansas Ophthalmological Society.

    Another son, lawyer Mark Henry, JD, has followed in his mother’s legal footsteps. He is in intellectual property practice and a trial lawyer. Today at least two to three of the Henry grandchildren are considering or beginning a medical education.

    Many tributes have been paid to giants of American ophthalmology such as those who research, publish articles, train future physicians, discover new surgical procedures or chair a department.

    Sometimes, the spotlight falls on the quieter, yet impactful people that have touched so many without fanfare. It has been said that few Renaissance men or women exist. Yet, the Henry family has contributed greatly across many aspects of Arkansans’ lives across many decades, and their dynasty has only just begun.

    How many of us have been told that “Your grandmother did my tonsils, and now you are going to do my cataract!” How wonderful to look at lives that bettered the ophthalmology field, benefited untold numbers of patients, but also touched Arkansas citizens across so many critical areas!

    The Henry Family