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The first children’s hospital at UMMC, built in 1968, featured a circular design.
The first children’s hospital at UMMC, built in 1968, featured a circular design.
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Medical visionary Dr. Blair E. Batson: Pioneer advances Mississippi pediatric care in 20th Century

Published on Tuesday, April 27, 2021

By: Annie Oeth, aoeth@umc.edu

Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Under the Rainbow, the semi-annual magazine for Children's of Mississippi.

Mississippi's pediatrics can be divided into two eras: Before Dr. Blair E. Batson and after. 

Batson, the first chair of pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the medical leader who led the way to the state’s first hospital for children, died Nov. 26, 2019, at 98. 

Dr. LouAnn Woodward, UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, said Batson’s importance to the health of children in the state “cannot be overestimated.” 

UMMC’s first pediatrics chair, Dr. Blair E. Batson, is shown in file photos and in his portrait displayed in the Batson Tower.
UMMC’s first pediatrics chair, Dr. Blair E. Batson, is shown in file photos and in his portrait displayed in the Batson Tower.

“He truly is the father of organized pediatrics in Mississippi,” she said, “and the lives of countless children in our state have been touched through his work.” 

Dr. Mary Taylor, Suzan B. Thames Chair, professor and chair of the department of pediatrics, said she is honored to walk in Batson’s footsteps. 

“Not a day goes by that I don’t feel the weight of walking in Dr. Batson’s shadow,” said Taylor, who, as a UMMC medical student, was guided toward pediatrics by him. “He laid our foundation and path.” 

Today, with 159 faculty members, pediatrics is one of UMMC’s largest departments, said Taylor. “That is a testament to him.”  

Batson’s successor as chair, Dr. Owen B. Evans, called him a living archive of pediatric diseases and experiences. 

“And he was a role model for me in how to be a gentleman,” Evans said. 

When away from UMMC, Batson enjoyed hobbies including fishing.
When away from UMMC, Batson enjoyed hobbies including fishing.

Born Oct. 24, 1920, Batson grew up in Pearl River County in the sawmill town of Orvisburg, where his grandfather, Ran Batson, owned the mill and his grandmother, Mary Bryan, was principal of the three-room, eight-grade school.  

For three years of Batson’s childhood, at the start of the Great Depression, he and his family lived in the northeast Mississippi town of West Point, where the local librarian, Lucy Heard, cultivated his lifelong love of books and learning.  

He earned his B.A. and M.D. at Vanderbilt University, where he completed a residency in pediatrics. While an undergraduate, he was president of the student council and of his fraternity, Sigma Chi. He served as chief resident at Vanderbilt from 1949-50 and had a faculty appointment there from 1949-1952. 

Batson completed a one-year residency at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and was on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine from 1952-55. He also received a Master of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University. 

He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1946-48 in Giessen, Germany, as ward officer for contagious diseases and pediatrics for the 388th Station Hospital. 

Batson is shown with Mississippi football greats Archie Manning, center, and son Eli Manning.
Batson is shown with Mississippi football greats Archie Manning, center, and son Eli Manning.

At 34, Batson was named chair of the Department of Pediatrics at UMMC just two months after the Medical Center opened its doors to patients in 1955. He officially retired in 1989, although he still taught for years afterward. During his long career, he taught more than 3,500 medical students and 240 pediatric residents. Among those was the late Dr. Aaron Shirley, who, under Batson’s leadership, in 1965 became the first African-American learner in any program at UMMC. 

Dr. Joe Donaldson, a former member of the pediatrics faculty, said Batson was “superbly trained” and read all the time.  

“He had seen virtually every interesting pediatric case in Mississippi since 1955,” Donaldson said. 

At Batson’s urging, UMMC's first children's hospital opened in 1968. The 100-bed round structure, at the time, was considered to be state of the art. The rooms were small, though, and not designed for parents to stay with their children. 

Batson is shown with Dr. Owen “Bev” Evans, who was the Medical Center’s second chair of pediatrics following Batson’s retirement, and patients.
Batson is shown with Dr. Owen “Bev” Evans, who was the Medical Center’s second chair of pediatrics following Batson’s retirement, and patients.

Over the decades, dramatic advances were made in pediatric care, and hospitals became more family-centered. Children who might once have been sent out of Mississippi for treatment, or worse, might have had no hope of a cure, were being treated in a hospital with a growing need for more space. 

It was a need that Evans, who had become chair in 1989, wanted to address. “Dr. Batson gave me the OK to build if we could raise the money, and within that year, consultants for strategic planning said that the number one thing UMMC needed to do was to replace its children's hospital.” 

Funding for a new children’s hospital got an unexpected boost a few months later, Evans remembered.  

“The grateful grandmother of a patient came over and said she wanted to leave us a little something. That 'little something' was 20,000 shares of Anheuser-Busch stock. At about $27 a share, that was $540,000, which we used to beef up the foundation and the lobby. That gave us the footprint to build on.” 

Batson is shown with Dr. Jeanette Pullen, professor emeritus of pediatrics at UMMC, in this file photo.
Batson is shown with Dr. Jeanette Pullen, professor emeritus of pediatrics at UMMC, in this file photo.

The Children’s of Mississippi Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, with construction funded by $2 million from the Junior League of Jackson, was finished in 1992, and because the new hospital was planned to be built around it, construction of the first five floors started in 1994. The sixth and seventh floors, for pediatric surgery, were added in 2004. By 2011, a pediatric emergency department was added. 

The Batson Tower, and the world-class care delivered there, thousands of pediatricians and now the new Sanderson Tower, all reflect back to 1955, when Batson was starting UMMC’s Department of Pediatrics from scratch.  

“I do think Dr. Batson had an idea what a thriving, robust Department of Pediatrics would mean for Mississippi,” Woodward said, “and I think he’d be proud of where we are today and the role that we play.”