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Two VUSM alumni, ages 101 and 99, remembered

Posted by Emily Stembridge on Monday, May 16, 2022 in Related Content, Spring 2022 .

People with strong social connections may live longer and healthier lives, according to numerous studies. Two Vanderbilt University School of Medicine alumni, both engaged throughout their long lives and careers, died days apart in January.

Gordon Petty, MD’50, and Henry Nelson, MD’45, both lived long, fulfilling lives with remarkable dedication to improving the lives of the thousands of patients they encountered.

Dr. Petty was born in South Carthage, Tennessee, on Sept. 19, 1920. In 1944, before embarking on his medical career, he joined the U.S. Navy and served two years before being honorably discharged with the rank of lieutenant. For his service, Dr. Petty was awarded the American Theatre of War Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Area Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.

Gordon Petty, MD’50

Dr. Petty received his medical degree from Vanderbilt in 1950 before completing a residency at the former Nashville General Hospital in 1951. In July of that year, he and a fellow Smith County High School classmate constructed the Petty-Green Clinic, which became the first licensed hospital in Smith County, Tennessee.

When Petty began practicing, he was the youngest doctor in Carthage, but he quickly made a reputation for himself. Since the town had no hospital, Petty practiced from a home office and often made house calls.

“I drove a 1948 DeSoto. I was running day and night. I kept a blanket and pillow in the back seat because I was doing so many calls, and sometimes I would stop and take a nap,” Petty told The Carthage Courier back in 2016. “I guess I went to every corner of Smith County and nearly every house.” Dr. Petty was particularly proud of the fact that he had delivered over 7,000 babies during his medical career. He was a lifelong learner with the remarkable ability to combine compassion and skill throughout his 52 years of medical service.

Dr. Petty retired from medicine on Dec. 31, 2001, at the age of 81, but remaining an active member in the local community kept him astute long after his retirement. He was a member of the Carthage Lions Club, sat on the board of directors of Citizens Bank, served on the Carthage Town Council and was an active member of the Carthage United Methodist Church. Dr. Petty was instrumental in the land acquisition, construction and design of the former Green Hills Golf and Country Club, as well as the Lebanon Airport.

Dr. Petty died at the age of 101 on Jan. 24, with his family at his bedside. He is survived by his two sons, Sam Petty, MD, and David Gordon Petty Jr., MD; brother, Joe Petty; four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Similarly, Dr. Nelson lived a life of service to his patients and community with a unique emphasis on missionary work. He was born in Huzhou, China, to Methodist medical missionaries, Oscar and Henrietta Nelson. Dr. Nelson obtained his Bachelor of Science in 1943 and his medical degree in 1945, both from Vanderbilt University. Due to the breakout of World War II and subsequent physician shortages, Dr. Nelson was fast-tracked through his undergraduate studies and graduated with his medical degree at the age of 22.

While in medical school he met Kathryn “Katie” Wolff of Bethania, North Carolina, and they married in January 1945. They were devoted and happily married for 73 years. They served 40 years as career medical missionaries with Presbyterian Mission Board in China and Democratic Republic of Congo where Henry helped design and build hospitals. He faithfully served as a surgeon and Katie as a nurse and nursing educator at IMCK (Christian Medical Hospital in the Kasai- Congo).

Henry Nelson, MD’45

In 1968, Dr. Nelson and his family returned to Tennessee where he joined a surgery practice. In the 1970s, he was one of the founders of the emergency medical group serving Fort Sanders, Saint Mary’s Hospitals and later Blount Memorial Hospital. Dr. Nelson was a courageous and creative problem solver who used his intelligence and practical skills to serve his family and patients.

He was a voracious reader, lifelong learner and user of new technology, which kept his mind young as he gracefully aged to 99 years old shortly before his demise on Jan. 31.

“As a doctor, I was always pushed to the limit of my knowledge and ability,” Dr. Nelson said in an interview shortly before his death. “I was always working at the extremes, and I had to be able to adjust and adapt all the time. I always wanted to learn everything I could.”

Dr. Nelson is survived by his children, Henry Sperry Nelson Jr., MD, States Lee Nelson, Kathryn Nelson Manier, Elizabeth Nelson Britton and Faye Nelson Maynard; 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren, with one on the way.