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Interview with R.T. Sinclair Jr., May 7, 2004 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with R.T. Sinclair Jr., May 7, 2004
May 7, 2004
Interview took place at Cape Fear Hospital Foundation, Wilmington, NC
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Sinclair, R.T. Jr. Interviewer: Mims, LuAnn / Parnell, Jerry Date of Interview: 5/7/2004 Series: Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length 60 minutes

Mims: Today is May 7th, 2004. I am LuAnn INTERVIEWER with Gerry INTERVIEWER 2 from the Special Collections at Randall Library, UNCW, continuing with our Health Services Oral History program. Today we are talking with Dr. Sinclair, a noted physician of this town. Hi Dr. Sinclair, how are you today?

Sinclair: Good morning.

Mims: Good morning. If you could start by giving us some personal background, where your family came from.

Sinclair: Well my parents both grew up in the…sort of the sand hill region of the state near Sanford, North Carolina. And they came to Wilmington because my father was working with one of the early railroads that evolved into the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. And they moved into Wilmington for some reason and he stayed with the railroad throughout his career, was an official with the Atlantic Coastline and their subsidiary roads.

I grew up in the area called Winter Park and there were five siblings other than myself in the family and divided into three boys and three girls. I was the second oldest and my elementary education was at the old Winter Park School, which was quite new at that time, but still had a coal stove in each room to heat with and outside toilet and no indoor plumbing and there was a pump out in the yard for water. So you see I date from an early time.

I was born December 29th, 1913. I took my high school at New Hanover, which was the only high school in the county at that time, of course. After high school, I went to a small junior college up in Maxton, North Carolina that later evolved into Saint Andrews College. And after finishing there I went to Wake Forest and completed my pre-medical work and went to…although Wake Forest, at that time, had a two year medical school, I didn’t take any medicine there, I went to Georgetown University in Washington DC and I graduated in 1938.

I had worked during the summer some with Dr. Ernest Bulluck who had built the private Bulluck Hospital Clinic some years before, of course, and so I came back and worked as the house physician there with Dr. Bulluck after I left Georgetown. And then in early 1940 I decided to go up to Whiteville and open up a general practice. I had joined the Medical Reserve Corps and in 1941, I guess, I first got orders to active duty about June, I think, of ‘41, but although the country was coming out of the depression, it was still pretty difficult times.

And of course, most of my patients at Whiteville in some way depended on tobacco for their income. And so most of my potential income was tied up in when they sold their tobacco. And so I did get a deferment until early December of ‘41 one before I actually reported for active duty. So that brings us up.

Mims: Well, let me ask you…why the field of medicine? What led you in that direction?

Sinclair: Well, early on I always had had some interest in science and actually through my college career I was working towards a degree in chemical engineering, but by the time I was finishing pre-medical requirements, not that I was working towards getting ‘em at that time, I began to realize that there wasn’t many openings for engineers of any kind and that maybe I ought to do something else and so investigating medical schools, I found out I had enough requirements to apply for admission and so just out of the whim of something, I…the only two I applied to was George Washington and Georgetown because I was somewhat familiar with Washington DC.

And I was accepted at both of ‘em and at that time George Washington was situated downtown in some not too attractive buildings and Georgetown had a brand new school sitting out there on the hilltop and I thought well, that looks like a more attractive place to go, and so I decided to go there.

Mims: So architecture led you there!

Sinclair: But there is no history in my family background of medicine.

Mims: Well, I’m glad you chose the field you went into. I had read something…you had touched on working with Dr. Bulluck early on…read that he used to have an old fashion punch clock for rounds and…

Sinclair: Um hum.

Mims: What was that about?

Sinclair: Well, for his nurses when they’d punch on duty and off duty.

Mims: Okay, it also said that he would summon the nurses with a xylophone.

Sinclair: Oh, he had…oh he didn’t have a big xylophone, but he had one that played about three notes, you know, ding, ding, ding.

Mims: Uh huh…and the nurses would come…at that time?

Parnell: Let me ask a question too. You said just now, too, that you worked with Dr. Bulluck prior to going to medical school?

Sinclair: Yea, well, during the summer…

Parnell: During the summer?

Sinclair: When I was in medical school.

Parnell: Oh, okay, while you were in medical school. And one more quick question…you went to medical school during the depression, so how…

Sinclair: We were coming out of the depression.

Parnell: Coming out of it…okay. How did you pay for medical school?

Sinclair: Well, of course, I was fortunate in that my father had a…what was considered a very good income at that time. And also at one time, he had three of us in college at one time.

Parnell: Wow!

Sinclair: Of course, cost of going to college was much different, but at the same time, when you compare dollars back then with what dollars are worth now, there’s not too much…

Parnell: It was a tough time, um hum.

Sinclair: For instance, I think, if I recall correctly, the tuition my senior year at Georgetown was a thousand dollars. And of course, you had to add to that all your books and your living expenses and so on, because the medical school did not have any living arrangements for students, you had to live out in the community, and you just rented rooms. But I just happen to be fortunate enough that my family was able to support me through it.

Mims: Well, we kind of stopped at your military experience, and I understand that you served with a MASH unit?

Sinclair: Early on…well of course when I first went on duty, this was a year away from Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt and other people…leaders…realized that we were getting drawn towards war, of course. And at that time our standing army was very small, ill trained, and so they were beginning to build up towards the fact that we probably were going to go to war.

And so after my initial indoctrination and training in active duty, part of it up in Pennsylvania, I was assigned to a new base outside of Petersburg, Virginia where we were actually training medical troops…corpsmen. And then later on I was ordered down to Fort Benning, Georgia where I was with the station hospital there.

And actually on the day of Pearl Harbor attack, two or three other officers and I had gone over to Warm Springs, Georgia, the place where President Roosevelt spent a lot of his vacation time. And on the way back to camp we heard it on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Well, when I got to my quarters at the officers barracks, I had a note on my door to report to headquarters the next morning. Well, I went, and I got orders to go to San Francisco. And they were trying to get a relief group to go to the Philippines to try to save General McArthur and his people.

And in trying to amass all of these people and all the trouble of finding ‘em, getting ‘em there, and outfitting, and so on, of course, the Philippines fell and a lot of us were really stranded around San Francisco for a short period of time. And I got an opportunity to go to Hawaii with a group that was going. And so when I got to Honolulu I was temporarily transferred over to the Air Corps which at that time was still under the Army, of course, and served as a flight surgeon for a B-17 squadron over on the other side of the island near a place called Kaneohe Bay.

And I stayed with the squadron until some time later they established a general hospital over on the big island of Hawaii. And I was transferred over there and served as the Chief of Radiology there. Then I was over in Hawaii for something over a year and got orders to come back to the states and I was first at a base there in California for a short time where Vandenberg Air Base used to be.

And then was sent up to Camp Grant up in northern Illinois and worked with the station hospital there awhile and then was sent to Brownwood, Texas to organize this so-called MASH hospital.

Let’s see…it was designated as the 51st Field Hospital. The men and officers assigned to me were sent there and we went through a training period which eventually resulted in us being sent to Fort Bragg. This was about December of ‘43 probably…around Christmastime…because I spent Christmas at my parent’s home.

While we were there we were sent over to the Maxton-Laurinburg Airbase where they were training glider crews. The idea that we would learn how to load our hospital equipment on these gliders and go into Europe on a glider. Well, we got that training, but fortunately they decided that that would be a little risky of having any equipment when you got there because half of ‘em wrecked of course.

But when we finished all this we were sent to New Jersey to go to Europe and of course we went over to England in February of forty…February of ‘44. While we were at Bragg, we also received our compliment of nurses. That was the first time nurses were assigned to us and my wife was sent from a hospital up in Virginia, not sure… anyway…

Mims: Where these part of the Nurses Cadet Corps?

Sinclair: Well, they had…yea, they had, you know, they had the Nurse Cadet Corps who were given officer status and she had been chief of the operating room at this Army hospital in Virginia. And so she was sent down to be chief nurse of the 51st Field Hospital. In England, of course, we continued our training and getting equipment and so on.

And then, of course, the invasion was…the work up towards the invasion was going on and England was just a massive staging area for millions of American troops. The English received us mighty fine and I’m sure some of the younger English soldiers didn’t think too much of us, because we had more money than they did and we attracted the girls more than they did. But…

Mims: Were you placed at Dover?

Sinclair: No, actually where we were staged was a little village called Ross-On-Wye, about sixty miles out of London. But then as time for the invasion approached we eventually were sent down to one of the ports. The nurses were separated from us and they went over on some sort of converted freighter type ship but they didn’t go when the rest of us went. We went over on these landing ships…landing tank type landing tank ship and, of course, we actually went on the beach on D-2 is when we landed on a beach.

And the nurses came in about four or five days later, I’m not sure of the date. But we had been able to set up our first hospital set-up and were receiving patients and so they were mighty glad when the nurses got there to help ‘em, I’ll tell ya.

Mims: Did you actually land at Normandy?

Sinclair: Yea, I landed on Omaha Beach.

Mims: Omaha Beach.

Sinclair: Yep. And that’s where the nurses came in eventually too. And…

Mims: So what was…I mean, you hear about how awful that whole situation was. You’re coming along and what…what was that like?

Sinclair: Well, the landing endeavor…beforehand it’s planned out to the minutest detail. And they have sand tables and maps and everything and they’ve got an exact place for you to be at a certain time, but of course it never works out that way. It’s total chaos once it starts and although actually right on the beach, when we came ashore, there was no active fighting from the standpoint of small arms.

There were air raids and snipers and so on, but of course things had been so hectic that up till that time, you know, they hadn’t been able to bury dead people…they were floating around in the water. When our landing ship hit the shore, another one came up right beside of us and this halftrack vehicle came off and hit an underwater mine and just blew right up. And of course we were…we could have been right there just as easy as that ship there because it was just like from here to over there.

So it was still very hectic and, you know, they have what they call beach monitors and commanders that’s supposed to direct things to some extent. And when I got ashore, I finally found one of ‘em and asked him where I should go and he said, “Well you just go where you can.” But the success of a… particularly an invasion landing on hostile shore, depends on individual initiative of individuals of small groups that just decide well they’ve got to do something, and they go and try to do it.

And it’s a summation of all of those that make it a success or a failure. And there are so many imponderables…for instance, when I went ashore with part of my people and with some of the trucks and the jeeps and things, I didn’t have the hospital equipment. There was one officer that was assigned to stay with it. It was on another ship. I didn’t have any idea where it was. But he had to come ashore and find me so he’d know where to have his stuff unloaded and get it to me.

Now just think how…how many chances there are that he would ever find me. And you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people coming ashore.

Mims: And radio communication was limited?

Sinclair: Yea, not like it is today, we had some of course. But…

Mims: But you did establish a field hospital?

Sinclair: Oh yea. And we had the first field hospital on the beach. And then, in Europe…the field hospital as conceived for the Pacific was more that you had three units in a field hospital. Each was capable of setting up a small hospital in tents for surgery. And so on the islands they could have one of these units on some small island which was secure and they would be able to furnish hospital care.

In Europe where the war was more of one single type effort, you know, and the idea was that these units would leap-frog each other as the line moves forward, you see. You’d try to set up the unit far enough back that small arms fire and so on is not too much of a problem for you. And usually each division has what they call a clearing station. And ahead of the actual first medical care that a wounded soldier can get is the battalion aid station. And this has a doctor and some medical corpsmen and so on.

And they usually are set up right behind where the jump-off place is. And they usually try to get behind a hill or in a…some place that gives ‘em a little protection. And so when the wounded gets to them they can stop bleeding, put a splint on a little bit, maybe start some plasma. And then they’ve got to get ‘em further back to really give ‘em any definitive care. And so if an ambulance can get there, they put ‘em on an ambulance. If it can’t, they’ll put ‘em on a jeep and try to get ‘em back. And they come to this clearing station.

We would try to set up the hospital right near them, maybe in the next field or something. And when these wounded come here they are able to do a little more for ‘em and they triage ‘em and if they are not wounded so bad that they can’t travel, they send ‘em to the field hospital. So the only wounded we got were very severe injuries that couldn’t travel back to a bigger installation.

And then those that can are sent back to what they call a VAC hospital, which may be in tents, but more likely be in a building of some sort. So that’s sort of the way…but of course, now days the helicopter is changing a lot of that. If they’re near the coast, the helicopter would probably take ‘em to the hospital ship so it’s a different thing now.

Mims: Trying to think of the whole logistics of setting up something like that…to generate electricity, and…

Sinclair: We had portable generators and portable water tanks and things that we took with us.

Mims: All the methodology you learned in school though, to apply into that setting, I’m sure you had to do things a little bit different.

Sinclair: Oh well, yea, that’s true. You actually have a receiving tent, like an emergency room, you know, that you can try to stabilize ‘em so that they can get into surgery. But during the war, and really we participated in all the five major campaigns, right on through France and Belgium, and Germany.

Mims: The hospital just followed ‘em.

Sinclair: Yea, we just followed ‘em, leap-frogging along and…

Parnell: How many people were involved?

Sinclair: In the hospital…well in…you’d have a headquarters unit which would have the commander, CO, and some enlisted men and one or two junior officers. Each one of these hospital units had…they were set up three, sort of, ward tents, and then a surgical tent. And all together there would be about six doctors and probably close to a hundred enlisted men, and I’ve forgotten how many nurses each unit would have, but at least six or more.

And then over in Europe, they had what they called surgical auxiliary teams, and when we were actually in operation receiving wounded, we would get additional personnel from these auxiliary surgical unit teams that would come in and stay with us until we closed up and moved.

Mims: How long were you in Europe doing this?

Sinclair: Well, of course…drawing toward the end of the war and I actually…the war in Europe, you know, ended actually early May…but I didn’t get back until October of f’45. When the war actually ended I was in Leipzig, Germany. And the Russians, of course, took that over later on.

Mims: Incredible experience. Well, once you returned to the United States, you picked up your career at that time?

Sinclair: Yea, when I came back I…of course I’d been away from my little practice in Whiteville so long, and I had known Dr. Bill Mebane and his family, and when I came back he talked to me about staying in Wilmington and going into practice with him and eventually that’s what happened. We formed a partnership and at that time he and Dr. Walker and one or two others had kept the Bulluck Hospital open.

Dr. Bulluck died during the war. I think it was…when I was home around Christmas in ‘43, I went to see him, and sometime before the invasion I got word from home that he had died. So he died sometime, I think, I early ‘43. And of course, because of the shipyard and all the things that were going here, it was very important to try to maintain as many hospital beds as you could.

And so Dr. Mebane, Dr. Walker, and there was another fellow with ‘em that went back to Virginia later on, agreed to do that, and they kept the clinic going. And so early on that’s basically where I worked, although we worked at James Walker also. And then at that time, of course, there was James Walker Memorial Hospital which, you know, the initial part of it was a gift from this old Scotchman, James Walker that was a…I think he started off as a mason…

Mims: Brick mason…

Sinclair: …and became a contractor I guess. And I think he was a bachelor, didn’t have any family, and so it was very generous of him. And Bulluck Hospital Clinic…and then James Walker, of course, was segregated, and Hill-Burton people, I guess, furnished most of the money for Community Hospital.

And before that there were a couple of black physicians here, Dr. Avant and Dr. Burnett, that had an old home on North Seventh Street, I believe, that they set up…and I know I used to go over there with Dr. Bulluck. He helped them a whole lot…did a lot of their surgery. I learned my surgery from Dr. Bulluck primarily, years ago.

Mims: You also had interest in Radiology, right?

Sinclair: Yea. Well, I started…he had one of the earlier X-ray machines here and I got interested, and then later on when I was in the Army, I was sent to school out in San Francisco and did some work in Radiology out there and continued that. And in the latter part of my career that’s all I did, was radiolo…diagnostic radiology.

Mims: I read that Dr. D. W. Bulluck, Dr. Ernest Bullock’s father may have been the first one to introduce Radiology to Wilmington?

Sinclair: I think he was credited with having the first machine here yea.

Mims: There was also a Dr. Caldwell; I think…that…that did Radiology a long, long time ago…like in the early 1900s.

Sinclair: Over at James Walker maybe…yes, yes, that’s right! And he died and his wife continued to run the Radiology Department but she didn’t do the reading. But then Dr. Graham Barefoot came in and began doing the radiology at James Walker. So it…by the ‘50s, the…of course Dr. Sidbury’s hospital…it was called Dr. Sidbury’s. He didn’t build it, he had help from people that built it, but he actually ran the thing.

But particularly James Walker and Bulluck Hospital were getting old and outdated and they…all of the services were, by today’s standards, very primitive. And the supporting structures, plumbing, electrical, and so on were very outdated. And there was a movement to try to get a bond issue passed and the idea was to tear out most of the old part of James Walker and built a sort of a high rise type structure.

And they came and talked to us over at Bulluck as to whether we would agree to close the Bulluck Hospital Clinic and do all the practice over there…if we could do that…and we thought that was a good idea and Dr. Mebane and I even bought property over there across from the hospital to build an office. But the bond issue didn’t go through, it failed. And then we began to think of some alternative as to what we would do, and the idea of whether it was feasible to start some sort of a small community hospital.

And we explored possible locations. One of ‘em was over there near where Hoggard High School is. And of course the so-called Wessel Sanitarium had been built after the war for tubercular patients. And it only operated for just a few years because the state then decided that they wanted to concentrate all the tubercular patients up at the McCain Sanitarium. And the little sanatorium was closed and had some acreage around it, and so we looked at that and talked to the county commissioners…that was owned by the county. And eventually they said that they would sell it to us…and there were three of us at that time…Dr. Mebane, Dr. Pace, and myself.

Which, although Dr. Pace’s practice wasn’t an integral part of ours, well, we all worked together. And so they said that they would be willing to sell it to us. Then we began to talk to people about whether they would be willing to serve on a board to own the hospital legally and operate it because we didn’t want to own the hospital. And after we got a number of responsible people that agreed that they would like to serve on the board, we bought the property and then we gave it to this board to be the legal owner of the hospital.

And we had some real fine people like Mr. Woodbury and Mrs. Henry Longley, Mrs. G. R. Smith, and Mr. Watkins of Watkins Hardware, a number of very responsible people which contributed a lot to the hospital being successful. And the hospital was opened in August of ‘57. Well, of course, James Walker was still having its problems of being outdated and so on, and so some years after the initial trial, they again, came up with the idea of trying to float a bond issue to actually go to another site to build a hospital. And that time it was successful.

And so the New Hanover Memorial Hospital opened in exactly ten years later, ‘67. And of course part of the agreement…and Dr. Eaton was very much a part of that…was that Community Hospital would be closed and they would be able to have staff privileges over at New Hanover, which occurred, of course.

Mims: Was Bulluck Hospital integrated as far as patients was concerned?

Sinclair: No…well it was to a degree…in that we didn’t have any black ward, but primarily…occasionally we would have a black person. Oh, I remember some of our own staff were treated there…the lady that ran the laundry and all, I operated on her for breast cancer there and we just put her in a room, you know.

Mims: But that was not set up, how James Walker was, where you had a certain area…

Sinclair: At James Walker they actually had a...a segregated black ward.

Mims: I know when the idea to open up what would become Cape Fear Hospital with the idea of integrating patients at that time…?

Sinclair: Uh huh, yea.

Mims: But as far as staff privileges…was that touched on…?

Sinclair: Of course, when we opened up, Community Hospital was there and the black physicians primarily practiced there.

Mims: Uh huh.

Sinclair: Later on, Dr. Eaton, in the latter part of his career, was on the staff at…I don’t ever recall him having a patient there, but he was on the staff.

Mims: Did you use some of the old facility when you went there…as far as structure was concerned…the sanitarium that was there…did you just use that facility, or did you tear it down and build something new?

Sinclair: We…we kept the main building and at that time, most of the patient’s were in wards and the first additional part of the structure was the west wing which was put on before we opened. So the basic part of the sanitarium was used with some renovations inside and as things went along, why gradually all of that disappeared of course.

Mims: And then the…the big addition, the round part came much later.

Sinclair: Oh, that came much later.

Mims: …cause that…that’s such a visible difference, you know, the square and then the round…

Sinclair: Yea.

Mims: …but interesting to see that. You…they also had a volunteer auxiliary called the Sunshine Ladies?

Sinclair: Um hum, yea, that was very successful.

Mims: I was wondering how the name Sunshine Ladies came along?

Sinclair: I don’t know.

Mims: Do you recall any female doctors in town while you were in your early career?

Sinclair: Not in the early part, no. And, I’m trying to recall who might have been the first one…

Mims: I keep coming across the name…by the name of Annie Smith, but don’t see very much written about her.

Sinclair: Hum. I can’t tell you anything about that.

Mims: Okay…doesn’t help? Okay.

Sinclair: Some of the early ones came along probably about the seventies was when some of ‘em starting coming. Primarily they would be in pediatrics or OB/GYN. As far as an internist or…and I guess some of the ophthalmologists…some of the early ones…

Mims: We have certainly been through a spectrum here and I think we’re about out of tape…

Parnell: About five minutes.

Mims: …so try to wrap this up quickly. Just trying to get your perspective on, you know, the transition…the big picture of medical services. Where it’s going, you’ve seen where it came from, can you offer any comment?

Sinclair: Well even after I got back from Europe as we’ve indicated, the supporting medical facilities were very outdated. And compared with today’s, were very primitive actually. Of course, during the war, penicillin came aboard and we had it in the Army, but to show you the difference in the concept of usage, a 20,000 unit dose of penicillin, when we were operating in Europe was a big dose, now they talk about a half a million units or a million units…in a bang.

But this started the antibiotics and of course certainly some of the surgical procedures developed during the war came into being in the civilian practice and the spurt in surgical care began to grow by leaps and bounds. And now, of course, organ transplants and so on are routine. The same thing with diagnostic procedures…up until the war, basically, the only way you could try to look into the body was with the X-rays. Well, now you’ve got sonographic ultrasound type imaging, you have CT scan which is computerized tomography, which is X-ray really.

But MRI is another thing, that’s a magnetic resonance…you put a person in an intense magnetic field to create an image, and then you have all the nuclear type of imaging. So in addition to that, now they have little fiber optic wires they can put inside and actually take pictures inside of a blood vessel, so you can see that…and now, of course, the big thing is biomolecular type endeavors…establish a genetic code already. And now they’re working towards trying to eliminate bad genes and manipulate genes to make ‘em good. So there is no end to what to look for in the future. But in spite of that, we are all mortal, even if you live to be a hundred and twenty five, cells are gonna degenerate one way or the other.

Mims: Well this has certainly been very informative for me and I appreciate your time that you have contributed to this.

Sinclair: Well, I enjoyed meeting ya’ll and hope you success in your endeavor and I think in particular you’d enjoy Sam Warshauer.

Mims: Yea, I’m definitely gonna contact him, especially under your recommendation.

Sinclair: Tell him I sent you over there.

Mims: And it was painless! (laughing) Well, thank you again, sir.

Sinclair: Okay.

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