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An Afternoon with Martha DuBose

An Afternoon with Martha DuBose, Granddaughter of AMWA Past President Dr. Kate Zerfoss (1948-1949)

By Eliza Lo Chin, MD, MPH with Martha DuBose

Last October, I had the good fortune of spending the afternoon with Martha DuBose, granddaughter of Dr. Kate Savage Zerfoss, AMWA Past President (1948-1949), and enjoying a special guided tour of the former home and office of Dr. Zerfoss. The building, which was in the Savage family for more than 80 years, is now named The Smith House for its current owners.

We spent a lovely afternoon together while Martha reminisced about her grandparents Kate and Tom Zerfoss, both prominent physicians in the Nashville and Vanderbilt University community, with whom she spent much of her youth.

Her father, Dr. Giles Christopher Savage was a respected ophthalmologist/otologist with a large private practice and a professorship at Vanderbilt Medical School. The Savage building, as it is still known to many Nashville natives, was both his office/infirmary and for a few years, his family’s temporary home. As a small child, Kate showed a precocious interest in medicine. Like a shadow, she would trail behind her father as he worked. One of her nieces passed on the story of how as a toddler, Kate rejected dolls for one of her father’s old, black medical bags, dragging it everywhere because it was too heavy to lift.

Kate graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1918 but could not pursue medical studies there because the Medical School did not yet admit women. So she studied instead at Tulane in New Orleans, choosing to follow in her father’s footsteps and specialize in ophthalmology. In early February, 1921, she married Thomas Bowman Zerfoss, a World War I veteran who had served as a cavalry medic in France and returned to Nashville where he was completing his medical degree at Vanderbilt. Five months later, Kate graduated from Tulane, hurried back to Tennessee and her also newly graduated husband, and soon joined her father’s practice. She and Tom had their first child (Martha’s mother) in 1922. Their son, Tom Jr. (a future physician) arrived in 1923.

After the unexpected death of her father in 1933, Kate carried on his practice and the maintenance of the Savage building, which she and her two older sisters eventually inherited from their mother. The Savage family had not lived in the building for decades, but “Dr. Kate,” as she was known to all friends, colleagues, and patients, kept her office there until she retired in 1975, at age 80. She and her sisters sold the building five years later. For decades, the building’s upper floors had been rented to a variety of artists, dance instructors, music teachers, and several long-time apartment dwellers, but a series of new owners converted it to restaurant and bed and breakfast trade.

Dr. Kate was honored in many ways over her long career. One of the most touching  was the naming of Vanderbilt’s Student Health Center, of which Tom Zerfoss was the long-time Director, for him and Dr. Kate. Martha also recalls that her grandmother’s membership in AMWA had special significance for her, especially the friendships and collegial relationships with other medical women. Dr. Kate loved traveling, always by train, to AMWA gatherings, and Martha accompanied her to several AMWA events in the late1950s. Neither Dr. Kate nor her granddaughter ever forgot the day when they and several other AMWA members stood on their Chicago hotel’s interior balcony overlooking a sea of people eager for a glimpse of the handsome, young Senator John F. Kennedy who was about to launch his first Presidential campaign.

Dr. Kate was fond of recounting an earlier example of AMWA collegiality. With the rapid expansion of highways and byways across the country, physicians began to see alarming rises in auto accident injuries caused by driving off the side of the road, especially in rural areas. Inspired by her train travel, Dr. Kate envisioned roads with lines on each side – the painted equivalent of railway tracks – that would guide drivers as the already commonplace center lines did. She and her AMWA friend used their professional clout to be heard In Washington. While they probably weren’t the first to propose the idea, they added considerable expertise to the argument for improved road safety with the addition of edgelines.

The highlight of my afternoon in Nashville was a top-to-bottom tour of the Savage building – now The Smith House – which is one of only two pre-Civil War residential townhouses remaining in downtown Nashville. Built in the late 1840s, the four-storey structure was first a boarding house. During the Civil War, Union officers occupied the house and planned their battle strategies in the second-floor library. The house was later leased to The Standard Club, one of Nashville’s many private men’s clubs, and spaces in the rear of the structure were converted to include a grand ballroom and Nashville’s first bowling alley. Dr. Savage purchased the building in 1898 to serve as both his family’s temporary residence and his medical office, examination rooms, operating room, and infirmary.

Now, a quarter-century after the house left the Savage family, Jerry Smith and his son Joshua are celebrating their tenth year of successful ownership of what is both a popular restaurant with local diners and tourists and the home of a private club – a 21st century version of the original Standard Club that boasts an impressive membership of Nashville’s movers and shakers, politicians, and music industry headliners. Part of the Smiths’ success is due to the care taken in the restoration of the building, in close consultation with local historians, and the preservation of many of the original architectural features including the brick walls, hardwood floors, plaster walls, hand-carved front door and winding entry-foyer staircase, and the inner courtyard garden that now flourishes year-round. Charming but non-functional reminders of the past abound: a complex tube “intercom” system, original gaslights, and coal-fired heating system. Even in the basement, much of which has been excavated, the Smiths found old secrets, like the small spring that was channeled under the house and probably was a source of clean water in the building’s early days. The Smiths have also added a few new surprises for guests to discover.

As we ended our tour, Martha told me, with a smile, that her grandmother would doubtless be very pleased with the Smiths’ renovations were she to visit her old office today, although as a lifelong teetotaler except for the rare glass of sweet sherry on special occasions, Dr. Kate might need a little time to adjust to the well-stocked bars.

Kate Zerfoss died in the spring of 1988. Tom Zerfoss followed her within six months. They had been married for 67 years. They are buried side-by-side in the Savage family plot in Mount Olivet, one of Nashville’s oldest cemeteries.

Photos below:

The Smith House (formerly the Savage building)

(L-R) Dr. Farzanna Haffizulla, Martha Dubose, Dr. Eliza Chin

Main dining area of The Smith House, formerly the office of Dr. Kate Zerfoss

An imprint on the floor shows the site of Dr. Zerfoss’s reception desk.

Original coal burning furnace


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