After Dr. Irma Henderson settled into her own office, she needed, like all physicians, some medical malpractice insurance. William E. Smathers of Autry-Smathers Insurance Agency sold her the coverage. They married the following year. She liked to say of her malpractice policy and her insurance agent, “I’ve had them for 40 years and been very well satisfied with both.”
The doctor drove a 1934 Chevrolet that she was proud to say she “could drive down creek beds and between trees,” to make house calls during the depression. She charged $1.00 a house call and would deliver a baby at home for $25. She loved delivering babies, finding it more dramatic than surgery. In fact, she delivered more than 6,000 babies. During World War II she once delivered eight babies in 24 hours. She worked endlessly to provide health care for those who didn’t have their own private physician.
She became ill in 1952 and closed her office after 25 years of private practice, but two years later reentered the field in public health medicine as a school doctor. When the city and county offices joined she became director of the city and county school health services. She worked on boards and committees of various local and state organizations all concerned with public health and safety. She retired in 1975, having been a staff member at Aston Park Hospital, Memorial Mission and St. Joseph’s Hospital, where she was the first woman elected at that time as chief of staff in an Asheville hospital. In an interview in 1986, although saying that there had been improvements in the public health sector, her main concern was still “the big gap between those who have and those who have not.” Dr. Smathers died in 1996 age 85.
In 2009 when Pack Memorial Library was preparing for renovation, the North Carolina Room staff was making a clean sweep of the basement area where non-archived collections had been in temporary storage. We discovered a stack of some 85 photographs of babies in glass frames. Some of the photos were addressed “To my doctor” and followed by the name of the child. If you were born in Asheville during the 1940’s and Dr. Henderson was your mother’s physician, we might have your baby picture.
“Dr. Irma Smathers Winds Up 42 Years of Practice Monday,” by Nancy Brower, Asheville Citizen-Times, June 29, 1975
“Doctor Says Today’s Children Are Smarter,” by Lynne Billings, Asheville Times, August 12, 1986
“Pioneering Doctor Dead at Age 85,” by Jason Sandford, Asheville Citizen-Times, April 15, 1996
Special Collection MS095, The Dr. Irma Henderson Smathers Collection
Post by Zoe Rhine, Librarian