Benjamin Rachford and Mary Emery Were a Dynamic Duo
Benjamin Knox Rachford, MD, probably did not look forward to summer. Year after year, this season marked the return of “summer complaint”—a virulent form of gastroenteritis which, in his day, was the leading cause of death in infants and children. And the more he became involved in local pediatric care, the more he was convinced that prevention was possible. Benjamin did not start his career wanting to be a pediatrician—the specialty didn’t exist when he graduated from the “Medical College of Ohio” in the early 1880s. However, he was an early proponent of the new-fangled “Germ Theory,” and his interest in the cause, treatment and prevention of infectious diseases invariably led him to concentrate his practice on children.
As early as 1888, Benjamin had identified the source of a local typhoid epidemic: the city’s water supply at the Eden Park Reservoir was contaminated. This led to him being appointed to a commission to study the feasibility of relocating the reservoir upstream, away from the city’s sewage system.
Benjamin also suspected that the city’s milk supply was a factor in the spread of gastrointestinal disease. At the time, there were no regulations to ensure that milk and the cows that produced it were handled in a safe, consistent and clean manner. Unscrupulous farmers might dilute their milk, or skim off the fat, or add toxic preservatives to mask spoiling—a particular problem in the summer when refrigeration was unreliable. Benjamin knew of a dairy in Kentucky that consistently produced high-quality, pasteurized milk, which they sold at a local drug store. But applying these quality measures was expensive, raising the price of this milk higher than what most families could afford.
In 1891, Benjamin became director of the pediatric clinic at Cincinnati Hospital, the forerunner to today’s University Hospital. He also gradually assumed care for this hospital’s pediatric inpatients and was granted various academic titles at the Medical College, including Chair of Pediatrics in 1901, in which he served on a voluntary basis. All these endeavors enhanced his reputation as THE local pediatric expert. Finally, in 1906, his efforts led to the establishment of a Milk Commission that created standards for the collection and refrigeration of high quality milk. Benjamin himself launched a “milk depot” at his children’s clinic to provide this “certified milk” for 5 cents per pint, instead of the commercial cost of 8 cents. Only one difficulty remained: how was he going to continue to offset the cost of this program?
And Then Along Comes Mary….
Mary Emery, to be precise, heir to the fortune that her husband Thomas and his family had acquired, initially through the export of candles and lard oil, and later (after Mr. Edison’s invention) through real estate development. The civic-minded Emerys were already known for their generosity toward children’s charities, though up until then they’d been directed towards the “other side of the hill” so to speak—Mt. Auburn, as opposed to Clifton. After all, it had been Mary’s sister, Isabelle Hopkins, who first approached their local bishop in 1883 with a proposal to build a charity hospital exclusively for the care of children. The following year, the Hospital of the Protestant Episcopal Church—the forerunner of our Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center—opened in a three-bedroom house in Mt. Auburn (the house still stands). Five years later, the Emerys donated a nearby parcel of land to build a new, much larger hospital.
As all of this unfolded, however, Mary and her husband were beset by terrible personal tragedies. In 1884, their younger son, Albert, was fatally injured in a sled-riding accident while away at boarding school. Six years later, their eldest son, Sheldon, having returned to Cincinnati from Harvard with the expectation that he would take over his father’s business, suddenly became ill and died at home two days later. By the time Rachford approached her in 1909 with his Milk Fund Proposal, Mary had been widowed for two years and was in possession of a large fortune with no immediate heirs.
She was not completely alone, though. Charles Jacob Livingood, a friend and former classmate of Sheldon’s, had, since her son’s death, become her confidant and financial advisor—and, some say, surrogate son—allowing her to remain in the background, as by all accounts she preferred distributing her largesse quietly and thoughtfully, without fanfare.
“Mrs. Emery has carefully considered the opportunity you presented to her this morning for doing good among the extreme poor who come to your clinic… (and she) begs me to say that she would like the privilege of standing behind you personally in this effort,” Livingood wrote to Benjamin, in the charming formal language of the day. A check for $100 accompanied the letter.
The so-called “Babies Milk Fund” clinics proved to be highly successful. They soon expanded to several sites around the city. Mary’s support also financed the hiring of nurses to provide routine preventive healthcare to children and pregnant women. Infants born at the University Hospital were routinely referred to these clinics for follow-up care. Additionally, the clinics served as training centers for countless medical students and pediatric residents. Mary Emery continued to support this endeavor for the rest of her life, ultimately investing over $75,000 in the Babies Milk Fund clinics.
Mary Emery’s association with Benjamin continued to benefit the pediatric medical community in other ways over the years. After the Medical College of Ohio and the Miami Medical College finally merged to become the UC College of Medicine, Mary offered $125,000 to endow a Department of Pediatrics, no doubt with the intention of seeing Rachford as its chair. Benjamin selflessly recommended that the college had a more pressing need: a Department of Pathology. Mary acquiesced, but later, in 1920, she repeated her original offer, doubling her gift by pledging $250,000 to endow the B.K. Rachford Department of Pediatrics. She wrote “It is my hope in this way to show my appreciation of the great service rendered to this branch of medicine by my friend, Dr. Benjamin Knox Rachford of Cincinnati.” She also put up the first $250,000 for the construction of a new medical school building.
Mary Emery died in 1927, having given away over 20 million dollars to charities both in Cincinnati and out of state, many of them benefiting children and the poor. She was also a major supporter of the arts. Her collection of paintings provided the seed for the Cincinnati Art Museum. In 1916, she and her friend Anna Stinton Taft purchased the bankrupt Cincinnati Zoo, insuring not only the zoo’s survival, but that of the Cincinnati Summer Opera, which was performed at the zoo until moving to Music Hall in 1972 and marked its 100th anniversary in 2020. She built the downtown Ohio Mechanics Institute which housed the Emery Theatre, which for many years was the home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. She was also the developer of one of the nation’s first planned communities, Mariemont.
Kenneth Blackfan, MD, was the first B.K. Rachford Professor of Pediatrics.
A. Graeme Mitchell, MD, served as the second Rachford Professor and also Physician-in-Chief.
Benjamin K. Rachford was involved in the recruitment of the first two chairs of the Pediatric Department that Mary Emery endowed in his name, Kenneth Blackfan, MD, and A. Graeme Mitchell, MD. As discussions got underway to relocate the Children’s Hospital to its current site and begin an affiliation with the university, Benjamin’s input and insight as one of the city’s most respected pediatric pioneers was solicited and, fortunately, obtained. He passed away in 1929, just after the new Children’s Hospital opened its doors. The Babies Milk Fund Clinics that he began with Mary Emery’s help continued to serve the city’s poor children and their families and to train future pediatricians for decades to come.