My Top Texan — Benjy Brooks
Tom Wancho is the exhibit planner at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
One of the great takeaways from the Texas General Land Office’s Top Texan, Final Four-like pool is learning about Lone Star Staters I never knew existed. Nearly everyone knows something about the heavyweights: Sam Houston (last year’s winner), Susana Dickinson, William Travis, Babe Zaharias, and LBJ. But it’s the Texans filling out the rest of the bracket who interest me the most. After all, they’re in this pool for a reason.
While scanning the list and reading the summaries I was impressed with the wide array of civil rights leaders, early Texas settlers, entertainers, soldiers, and politicos. But one name and her story continued to tug at me: Dr. Benjy Brooks (1918–1998). There are other more famous — indeed, world-famous — surgeons on the list, most notably Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Denton Cooley, both of whom have been featured in exhibits at the Bullock Museum. But I was drawn to Dr. Brooks because she devoted her entire life to pediatrics and operating on children.
Brooks knew from an early age that she wanted to be a doctor. She began operating on her sister’s dolls at age four, opening them up with a pair of her mother’s manicure scissors, removing the squeaker, and then stitching them back up. She graduated from dolls to children, operating on more than 20,000 babies during her career. Her lifelong dream became her actual life.
I liked that, during busy days in the operating room, she would take a break and drive to a local school playground to watch healthy children playing, and then return to the OR re-energized and focused on her next patient.
Predictably, her path toward becoming the first female pediatric surgeon in Texas required a lot of work. After receiving her B.S. degree (at 19 years old) and M.S. degree (at 21) from North Texas State Teacher’s College (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, she taught high school science for four years. In 1944 Benjy Brooks enrolled at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. After receiving her M.D. in 1948, Dr. Brooks accepted residencies at the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Medical Center in Boston. She spent 1957 in Glasgow, Scotland studying at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. She returned to Texas in 1960 to practice at Texas Children’s Hospital and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Houston. In 1973, she joined the newly formed University of Texas Medical School as a tenured full professor and established the Division of Pediatric Surgery, which she headed for the next ten years.
When patients are children, the bond between surgeon and patient extends to their immediate family. Mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters suddenly realize that the life of their offspring and sibling is in the hands of someone else. How many families breathed a collective sigh of relief after Dr. Benjy Brooks told them the surgery went just as planned? How many lives were saved? How many babies grew up to be healthy adults with families of their own following their procedures under Dr. Brooks’s steady hand?
One set of grateful parents set up a foundation in her name. The Benjy Brooks Foundation for Children honors her pediatric legacy by endowing chairs at medical colleges, donating special equipment to hospitals and medical centers, and providing research grants for the study of pediatric illnesses and diseases.
It is doubtful that Dr. Benjy Brooks will win this tournament, but she’s got my vote as this year’s Top Texan.
The 2017 Top Texan contest is live! Cast your votes here: www.savetexashistory.org/toptexan