Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Regional magazines enjoy success with cover stories showcasing the area’s “best doctors.”

Though I personally would never indulge in formula writing, a dinner several years ago reunited me with my childhood physician. Dr. Bertram Snyder had offices first in Ballston (where my current doctor’s practice) then in the group building at 601 S. Carlin Springs Rd.

My chat with him inspired me to survey friends and consult histories to give some ink to Arlington’s medical notables of times past.

Start with the pre-Civil War physician and Arlington local government stalwart Dr. George Wunder.

From his farmhouse near the intersection of today’s N. Glebe Rd. and Lee Highway, he was summoned in 1858 to the home of plantation owner Basil Hall to treat (without success) the slaveowner’s wife, who had been pushed into a fireplace in anger by her enslaved servant Jenny Farr.

After the turn of the century, the pioneer of Arlington’s public health services was Henry Clay Corbett, according to Nan and Ross Netherton’s pictorial history of Arlington. In the 1910s, this graduate of George Washington University mobilized against contagious diseases and improved our forebears’ sanitation.

After Arlington Hospital was built in the mid-1940s, its chief of pathology for a half-century was Dr. William Dolan (known as “Mr. Arlington Hospital,” according to my friend George). Dolan was also the county’s assistant medical examiner and a co-founder of the American Blood Commission.

Inquiries to the Arlington County Medical Society produced a tip about Dr. W. Leonard Weyl, a surgeon in Arlington who became president of the Medical Society of Virginia. “He was a motivator to get physicians involved in politics,” I was told by Dr. Edward Koch, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology who worked with him in the early 1970’s at Northern Virginia Doctors Hospital.

Serving the African-American community in the 1930s was Dr. Edward Morton, who ran for County Board. That role in the ‘50s and ‘60s was filled by Dr. Harold Johnson, who had an office in Falls Church with partner Dr. Oscar Ellison. Atypically, Johnson lived in the primarily white neighborhood on N. Lexington St., but invested in Halls Hill rentals, according to Wilma Jones’ new book “My Halls Hill Family.”

A surprising number of female doctors emerged in the ‘50s and ‘60s. My friend Eddie recalls pediatrician Dr. Ruth White, who partnered with her physician husband in an office on N. Glebe near Lee Highway (now the bakery Livin’ the Pie Life). “She was a very serious woman who wore her hair pulled back in a tight bun,” Eddie recalls. Another mainstay at Northern Virginia Doctors Hospital in the 1950s was ob-gyn Dr. Shirley Martin, who also had offices at Seven Corners.

Beginning in 1974, innovative orthopaedist Dr. Robert Nirschl established “one of the first sport medicine facilities on the East Coast,” says the website of his still-going center. Nirschl has long been the team doctor for Yorktown High School.

Finally, my friend Mary recalls surgeon Dr. Leon Block, who during her teen years in the late 1960s treated her after a car accident.

Block, who moonlighted as an admired jazz musician, performed “nine surgeries on my battered face,” she recalled.” Classmates were not kind when she came to school in bandages and black eyes. Said Mary, “He became like a surrogate father and supported me through those tough years.”

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Arlington has chiseled another chip out of the legacy of former local resident Robert E. Lee.

The School Board Dec. 21 gave final approval to a volunteer committee’s proposal to rename the historic Stratford Junior High (currently home to the soon-to-relocate H-B Woodlawn secondary program). It was originally named in 1950 for Lee’s birthplace.

When the new 1,000-plus-seat middle school opens there on Vacation Lane, signage will call it the Dorothy Hamm Middle School, after one of the African-American parents who in the mid-1950s fought the legal battle to integrate Arlington schools.