VOL.10 NO. 4      SPRING 2001

The Doctor is (Still) In

by Nettie Bagley

A semi-retired physician who still advises doctors and nurses in third-world countries, who participates in marathons, and who drives his own car? Not so remarkable, you say? Well, maybe not—until you learn that he recently celebrated his 100th birthday.

Russell Clark BA’26, born November 19, 1900, in Montpelier, Idaho, has almost seen it all. His experiences span the 20th century, from horse-and-buggy days to space travel, through the infamous days of gangsters and the Great Depression to modern-day heart transplants and brain imaging, and from the early uses of penicillin to the advent of micro-surgery. “The changes have been remarkable,” he says, “especially when you see the advances in heart, lung, and mental health treatment.”

Clark was a student at the U when the medical school program was completed in two years, George Thomas was president, and freshmen who dared to come up the hill without their green beanies were dunked in a water tank. After graduation in 1926, he did his internship and residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, where he was pleased to find that the dean of the medical school and later chancellor of Northwestern University Medical School was a U of U alumnus, Rocky Miller, who quickly enlisted Clark’s help in reviewing credentials from other Utah applicants.

In Chicago, Clark’s work was also a part of history. As a resident at Cook County Hospital in 1929, he was given the assignment of certifying the deaths of the seven members of “Bugs” Moran’s gang who were greeted at a Chicago garage by Al Capone’s shot-gun-carrying henchmen in what became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. When Clark lifted the sheets to view the wounds, he remembers, “They were definitely dead.”

His association with less-than-upright citizens also involved some who were living. On one occasion, he greeted a polite, well-dressed gentleman who appeared at his office door after closing time needing some relief from a cold. Clark soon discovered his patient was the man who had sprung John Dillinger from an Indiana prison using a gun that he had carved from wood, information the gentleman freely offered the unflappable doctor.

“That was the down side of things,” Clark says. “The up side was that I had a practice involving a lot of wonderful people.” During the Depression he treated people knowing there would be no pay, making many house calls and dispensing free medication where needed. “I had a lot of respect for the pharmaceutical detail men,” he says, “because they would always leave an extra supply of samples knowing my patients could not afford to pay for prescriptions.” Buying cough medicine by the gallon, Clark and his nurse would dispense it to needy patients in three- to four-ounce bottles—all free. When the Depression was over, “it was bread cast upon the water,” Clark recalls. “Those were the people who returned—now with paying jobs—and referred their neighbors to me as well. Was I ever busy,” he says with a smile.

With no car, no money, and a great desire to learn more, Clark would fill in for those residents who wanted to party or sleep in, so he got lots of extra hands-on experience. His specialty, obstetrics and gynecology, came about almost by default because he spent so many hours helping other doctors deliver babies. He later specialized in general surgery after completing a one-year surgical residency in Glendale, California.

He was also invited to extern at Ravenswood Hospital in Chicago, for which he was paid $25 a month, including laundry and board and the opportunity to study off duty and on the elevated train as he traveled to and from work. By the time his residency at Cook County was completed in 1930, he had worked at two hospitals and had earned two intern diplomas.

Clark was married in 1930 when he received his Illinois state license. Among his first patients were those he had cared for at Cook County. In 1948 he moved his family to California, where he practiced in Santa Ana, Long Beach, Artesia, and Tustin.

After retiring to Santa Ana in 1972, Clark continued to assist other doctors for eight years. His daughter, Beverly Johnson BA’53, says he is still approached by patients and friends for medical advice. In 1997 he accompanied his son, Robert MD’79, a family practitioner, to Jordan, where they taught neonatal techniques to doctors and nurses at four hospitals in an attempt to reduce that country’s 50 percent mortality rate in newborns. He has also gone three times to China to teach, once accompanied by Robert and another of his sons, John, a neurosurgeon.

And the marathon? For two years Clark has participated in a relay run in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he walks his one-sixth share of the race (4.4 miles) and finishes without working up a bead of sweat. He is already signed up to walk his share again in May of 2001.

Walking five miles a day is one of Clark’s hobbies, which also include golfing, horseback riding, and traveling. He still drives his own car, holding a recently renewed driver’s license, which he plans to renew again in two years. (He’s had no citations since an overtime parking ticket 15 years ago.) In December 2000, he drove to St. George, Utah, for the 90th birthday celebration of a friend from his youth. “There’s no one else alive who’s known him as long as I have,” Clark quips.

Asked to reveal the secret to his longevity, he replies that it is no secret at all. “It’s in the genes,” he says. “Longevity runs in my family. But growing up on a ranch and working hard through the years have helped, too. It’s also a matter of staying active and having a positive attitude.”

Clark was honored at two separate celebrations for his 100th birthday but doesn’t intend to rest on his temporary celebrity status. His plans for the future include participating in the May marathon and taking a cruise with his 83-year-old wife, Donna. He will continue to participate as a leader in his church, and still finds those daily walks invigorating. “Life is wonderful,” he says.

Nettie Bagley BA’59 is Continuum editorial assistant.

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Copyright 2001 by The University of Utah Alumni Association