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American Medical Biographies/Polk, William Mecklenburg

Polk, William Mecklenburg (1844–1918)

William Mecklenburg Polk, gynecologist of New York, son of Leonidas and Frances Devereux Polk, was born in Ashwood, Maury County, Tennessee, August 15, 1844. His early education was obtained in Marion, Alabama, and at St. James College, Maryland, where he prepared for admission to the Military Institute of Lexington, Virginia, then conducted under the personal direction of General Stonewall Jackson. There he pursued the mathematic and scientific course of study preparatory to entering West Point Military Academy. When the war between the states began, he was in his seventeenth year, but physically well equipped and with a knowledge of military tactics that enabled him at once to be of assistance to the Confederacy. He began service in 1861 under General Jack-son in Richmond, as drill master of Virginia state troops, and later, while attached to the staff of General Zollikoffer, served as drill master of Tennessee state troops. From April, 1861, to May, 1865, Polk was continually in active service and it is doubtful if any soldier under either flag took part in more battles and skirmishes. In May, 1863, he was appointed assistant chief of artillery in Polk's Corps, and subsequently captain in the adjutant general's department, Army of the Tennessee, on the staff of General Joseph E. Johnston.

At the close of the war Dr. Polk accepted a position as superintendent of the outdoor department of the Brierfield (Alabama) Iron Works, and while thus employed became interested in medicine, beginning its study at that time under the direction of Dr. E. W. C. Bailey. He then attended the medical department of the University of Louisiana (now Tulane University). In 1868 he came to New York, where he continued his studies in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, from which he was graduated in 1869. Immediately thereafter he entered Bellevue Hospital as interne on the medical side and served the required eighteen months, during which time he was brought into close relations with Drs. John S. Metcalfe, Alonzo Clark, Austin Flint, James R. Wood and Alfred L. Loomis (q. v. to Clark, Flint, Wood and Loomis). At the close of his service he received an appointment as one of the curators to the pathological department of the hospital, in which capacity he served for one and one-half years. Later he received an appointment as assistant demonstrator of anatomy in Bellevue Hospital Medical College and was then advanced to the position of professor of materia medica, therapeutics and clinical medicine in the same institution. After filling this position for four years, in 1879 he accepted the appointment to the professorship of obstetrics and diseases of women in the medical department of the University of the City of New York. Meanwhile, in 1874, he had been appointed visiting physician to Bellevue Hospital, and in 1878 visiting physician to St. Luke's Hospital.

After accepting the position of professor of obstetrics and diseases of women in the University, Dr. Polk resigned from the staff of St. Luke's Hospital in order to concentrate his attention upon gynecological work in Bellevue, where in conjunction with Dr. W. Gill Wylie and Dr. W. T. Lusk (q. v.), he devoted himself to the creation of the large gynecological service which sprang up in that institution under the combined efforts of these three men. Dr. Polk continued to devote himself mainly to surgical gynecology and gradually withdrew from the teaching of obstetrics, being succeeded in that department by Dr. J. Clifton Edgar, Dr. Polk having the title of professor of diseases of women.

In 1898, when, through the interest of Colonel Oliver H. Payne in higher medical education, the medical department of Cornell University was inaugurated, Dr. Polk was honored by the appointment as dean of the faculty and also filled the chair of diseases of women in the same institution. Upon him, together with Dr. Lewis A. Stimson (q. v.), devolved the arduous labor of successfully organizing this department. He threw himself vigorously into the work of perfecting the school, and being surrounded with associates who ably assisted in executing his plans, at the end of the fourth year had succeeded in establishing a medical college which is now recognized as one of the leading institutions in America. To the medical department of Cornell University and to special surgical work in diseases of women, Dr. Polk subsequently gave all of his time and attention.

Dr. Polk was at various periods, president of the American Gynecological Society, of the New York Obstetrical Society, of the New York Academy of Medicine, a member of the county medical society, the Medical Society of the State of New York, the American College of Surgeons, the New York Academy of Medicine, the Medical and Surgical Society, Practitioners' Society, the Pathological Society, and corresponding fellow of the Société Obstétricale et Gynécologique of Paris, France, and of many other foreign medical societies. He was also a member of the Century and Metropolitan Clubs and a vestryman of Trinity Corporation of the City of New York. In 1893 the University of the South conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Dr. Polk held for many years the position of consulting gynecologist to St. Luke's, St. Vincent's, the General Memorial and the Lying-In Hospitals of New York.

Dr. Polk was married, November 14, 1866, to Ida Ashe Lyon of Alabama, who died a number of years before him. Subsequently he was married to Maria H. Dehon of New York. Of the two sons by his first marriage, the elder, Frank L. Polk, a prominent member of the bar, was Counsellor of the Department of State; the younger, Dr. John M. Polk, died several years before his father.

Dr. Polk was a frequent contributor to the American Journal of Obstetrics, and to the proceedings of the American Gynecological Society, and was also the author of a biographical work, "Leonidas Polk, Bishop and General," his well-known father, who met his end in 1864, while in the service of the Confederacy.

An eloquent speaker, a man of broad views, Dr. Polk was one of the honored names in the group of eminent medical men of the past generation, a scholar and a gentleman, loved and respected by his pupils and associates, whose life and works constitute his most enduring monument.

Amer. Jour. of Obstet., 1918, vol. lxxviii, 598–600. Portrait.