When you read about Dr. Hilla Sheriff in history books and medical literature, you get the feeling that she was a really nice lady, as well as a leader in Spartanburg’s healthcare at a time (1930s) when women doctors were a scarce oddity. Dr. Sheriff set higher standards (sometimes completely new standards) for the people who needed it the most—women and children, black and white, in the mill hills and back roads of Spartanburg during the Great Depression, setting the bar for decades throughout the state, and even throughout the Southeast. In many ways, this woman doctor, born in Easley, gave the poorest of the poor a fighting chance at a better life.
Imagine this: a young woman with little black bag in hand—one of only three women to receive a degree in medicine from the Medical University of South Carolina in 1926—traveling the dirt roads of Spartanburg County with her “health mobile.” This was not a shiny new high-tech bus with X-ray machines and computers. This was a trailer pulled behind a truck, but it had an exam room, seats for 16, and a cooking-demonstration area for herself and her two colleagues. Though Dr. Sheriff was well versed in the latest medical knowledge of the day, she also had the good sense to play to her audience. She did more than just tell the hard-scrabble women (not many men cared to participate) that they needed more niacin in their diet to combat pellagra (a nasty disease often described as “the four Ds: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death”), she taught them how to add variety into their usual meals of fatback, cornbread, and molasses. She suggested that instead of feeding the pigs the nutritionally rich pot liquor from overcooked fresh vegetables and dried beans, drink it. Pretty tasty, and good for you, too.
In her extensive efforts to save the lives of babies (Spartanburg had one of the worse death rates in the nation) and their mothers, Dr. Sheriff, now as the director of the Spartanburg County Health Department (circa 1933) campaigned to raise the status and skills of midwives. Knowing that change can sometimes come slowly, especially when faced with ignorance and ingrained cultural preferences, she was relentless in requiring would-be midwives to receive some basic training in healthcare and a state license. To smooth some feathers, she saw no harm in letting midwives continue to put knives under the beds of birthing mothers to “cut the pain,” just so long as they knew to wash their hands before delivering the newborns.
The results that Dr. Sheriff got in Spartanburg (cutting the death rate from tuberculosis in half and installing 1,445 “sanitary privies”) could not be ignored, and they paved the way for her extensive career in public health on the state level. In 1940, she moved to Columbia as the assistant director of the Division of Maternal Child Health. For the following three decades, Dr. Sheriff continued to “serve humanity” (one of her stated life’s goals, made as a freshman at the College of Charleston), always seeing the big picture, but focusing on the needs of the state’s most underserved—women and children of the working class. Birth control and child abuse were other areas of her special interest.
She retired in 1974 (or 1978, depending on which book you read) as the deputy commissioner of the State Department of Health and Environmental Control and chief of the Bureau of Community Health Services. She died in 1988 at about the age of 85. Her list of professional accomplishments is, as expected, very long, but the state’s highest award, the Order of the Palmetto, speaks volumes about a lady doctor from Spartanburg.