Department History

Pediatrics as a separate, recognized entity at the University of Arkansas medical school began when Dr. Morgan Smith came to the school in 1904. Dr. Smith, from El Dorado, graduated from the medical school in Little Rock and later took training at Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans. There were no recognized pediatric residency training programs at that time, but Dr. Smith spent 6 months in New York getting special training in the diseases of children. Soon after Dr. Smith joined the faculty, the school added a dedicated pediatric clinic at the Isaac Folsom Clinic, the medical school’s teaching clinic. Dr. Smith was very active in public health, serving for a time as the head of the states’ hookworm eradication project. He was instrumental in writing and lobbying for legislation that created the Arkansas Department of Health. Dr. Smith later became Dean of the medical school, a position he held until he died in 1935.

After Dr. Smith died, the teaching of pediatrics was left to volunteer community pediatricians, including Dr. Barnett Briggs of Little Rock and Dr. Edwin Mullins of Pine Bluff, the first two certified pediatricians in Arkansas. In 1943, Dr. Vida Gordon came to Arkansas as the Medical Director of the Arkansas Crippled Children’s Program. The state health department had received grant funding from the federal government to improve children’s health in Arkansas and initially was going to pursue a child care project in rural counties, but Dr. Gordon convinced Dr. Francis Rothbert, the head of maternal and child health, that developing a dedicated Department of Pediatrics at the state’s only medical school would do the most to improve child health in Arkansas. The separate, dedicated department was established in 1946; initially having a total budget of only $33,420. The department consisted of one full time pediatrician, a half time pediatrician, two nurses, one laboratory technician, a medical social worker, two residents, and a secretary. Dr. William Reilly was recruited to serve as the chair of the department. In 1950, Dr. Reilly obtained a $500,000 grant from the Willliam Buchanan Foundation to establish a pediatric center within the new University Hospital which was then being planned. When the new UAMS hospital was built on West Markham, the 5th floor was the Buchanan Pavilion for Pediatrics and had 135 inpatient pediatric beds.

After Dr. Reilly left the department, Dr. Katharine Dodd was recruited to serve as chair of the department. She was the first woman to serve as the chair of a department of pediatrics in the United States. Dr. Dodd went to medical school at Johns Hopkins, graduating in 1921, and did a pediatrics residency at Yale. After serving on the faculty at Vanderbilt for several years, she was chosen to be the chair of the UAMS Department of Pediatrics in 1952. Dr. Dodd published many scientific papers; she was one of the very first to use insulin for the treatment of diabetes in children and she was the first to identify the herpes simplex virus as the causative agent in certain cases of stomatitis. The May, 1962 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics was dedicated to Katherine Dodd; in the issue she was described by one of her colleagues as “unquestionably one of the most widely informed pediatricians of our era” and the editorial said of her “If the job could end with introducing Katie as one of the greatest pediatricians of our time, then the task would be relatively easy.  But few who have known her and loved her would be satisfied with such an effort.  To give a fair picture of her compelling integrity, contempt for what she deems to be double dealing, devotion to the house staff, enthusiasm, gruffness, shyness, indifference to physical discomfort, and love of out of doors is beyond the power of my pen”. Dr. Dodd retired from UAMS in 1957 and died in 1965.

Dr. Theodore Panos served as the chair of the department from 1958 until his untimely death in 1970. Dr. Panos came to Little Rock from Galveston where he had been a professor of pediatrics. Dr. Panos’ research interests were wide ranging. He published a very important study on the epidemiology of polio; he was involved in studies of the biochemical changes in premature infants, and he was most interested in adrenogenital syndrome. He was very involved in consultation with the Air Force on the care of dependent children and tremendously improved the level of care provided to them. Dr. Panos was responsible for the selection of the first African American pediatric resident at Arkansas, Dr. Jocelyn Elders. Dr. Elders subsequently went to Minnesota for her fellowship before she returned to UAMS. She advanced through the academic ranks to become a Professor of Pediatrics as a pediatric endocrinologist; the first African American to become a full professor at UAMS. In 1987, Dr. Elders was appointed as the director of the Arkansas Department of Health and in 1993, she became the first Arkansan to serve as Surgeon General of the United States. During Dr. Panos service as chair, the faculty grew to 17, with coverage in all pediatric specialties of the time.

After Dr. Panos died, Dr. Robert Merrill was recruited from Virginia to be the chair. Dr. Merrill continued recruiting of pediatric specialists, including Dr. Florence Char, the first clinical geneticist in Arkansas. Dr. Merrill served as chair for only two years before leaving to take a chairmanship at Texas Tech. In 1975, Dr. Robert Fiser, an honor graduate of UAMS, was recruited as chair. He had been a pediatric resident under Dr. Panos and then did a pediatric endocrinology fellowship. When he was appointed chair of the department, he was 32 years old, the youngest chair of a clinical department in a U.S. medical school. The growth of the Department of Pediatrics under Dr. Robert Fiser was phenomenal. He was instrumental in moving most of the Department of Pediatrics to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in 1979. The faculty grew from 24 to more than 140 during his tenure as chair. With the movement of the Department to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, incredible growth was seen in both institutions. Dr. Fiser was also responsible for recruiting Dr. Betty Lowe to join the department in 1977. Dr. Lowe served as the medical director of Arkansas Children’s Hospital from 1977 until she retired in 2001. During her tenure, the hospital grew from 45 beds to 260 beds and 70 outpatient clinics. Dr. Lowe was elected as the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the major pediatric professional society, in 1993 becoming the first woman and the first Arkansan to serve in that office.

When Dr. Robert Fiser retired in 1994, Dr. Debra Fiser became chair of the department and the growth of the faculty and the clinical service has continued. Through its remarkable 100 year history, there is a thread that runs throughout: From the hookworm eradication efforts of Dr. Morgan Smith, to the advocacy of Dr. Vida Gordon for an administratively separate department, to the research contributions of Drs. Dodd, Panos, and others, to the vision and enthusiasm of Dr. Robert Fiser and Dr. Betty Lowe, a dedication, even a passion, for the improvement of children’s health and well being in Arkansas. A legacy of which we can be proud and a foundation upon which to build!