Irma Henderson Smathers was born in Madison County in 1910 to Carlene “Jenny”and Logan Henderson.
Growing up in Marshall, “Irma painted her dolls with Mercurochrome and did surgery and suturing on their sawdust bodies. She told everyone she was going to be a doctor. They said, “No, dear, you mean you are going to be a nurse.”
The child, corrected them. “No,” she insisted, “a Doctor.”
As fortune would have it, Dr. J.N. Moore, a family doctor in Marshall boarded with Irma’s parents. Irma idolized the man and accompanied him on house calls. Irma said he did not encourage her in the least, saying the work was too hard for a woman, and the hours too long. Irma’s parents moved from Marshall to Woodfin and after graduating from Woodfin High School she entered Mars Hill College. Dr. Moore had said he would pay her tuition through college and medical school if she could earn her own room and board. She made her own clothes, taught piano and was a student teacher. Graduating first in the class, she went on to the U.N.C. Chapel Hill and from there to Tulane University’s School of Medicine. As a medical student, she wrote “bad” fiction under another name to support herself. She graduated in 1933, one of five female students in a class of one hundred and the youngest medical school graduate in the South that year. Dr. Henderson was 5 feet tall and weighed 100 pounds.
Irma arrived in Asheville in June 1933, deep in the middle of the depression, and a month too late to take her state board examination. She worked for a year without salary at the Aston Park Hospital, and in 1934 opened her office in the New Medical Building on Market Street for practice of general medicine, accepting only women and children as patients. She had the destinction of being the first native Western North Carolina woman to practice in Asheville.
The federal government was opening a cannery in Asheville, to employ 1,000 people and to preserve food to give to the hungry. Dr. Margery Lord, city health officer, saw to it that beginning doctors got the contracts to examine, at 75 cents each, the people hired for the cannery. She examined all 750 women workers. “I was paid all in one check and it was about my biggest check ever — or for a long time. I paid my office rent with it, put some down on a car, some down on instruments. It just helped, that’s all.”
Dr. Irma Smather’s life and her contributions to Asheville will be continued.
We have a little information on canneries during W.W. I but none on a federal cannery in Asheville in the early 1930s. If you have information we hope you will share it with us. Add a comment on this blog or email us at packnc.buncombecounty.org.[Information from, “Dr. Irma Smathers Winds UP 42 Years of Practice Monday” Asheville Citizen-Times by Nancy Brower , June 29, 1975.]
Post by Zoe Rhine, Librarian