Donald Gatch reviled in the 1960s, revered today for poverty crusade

February 12, 2010 

Before the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, Beaufort County waged a War on Hunger. The man who fired the first shot was Dr. Donald Gatch.

While practicing medicine in Beaufort County in the 1960s and '70s, Gatch exposed staggering levels of malnutrition and hunger in the coastal South Carolina area -- hunger few people knew still existed in the 20th century. His revelations made him unpopular among health officials and local media. For example, a Beaufort Gazette editorial in November 1967 said the doctor's testimony on hunger amounted to little more than Gatch"running his mouth."

He was threatened by locals, forced to close his practice in Beaufort and investigated by local public officials. Nonetheless, the doctor's work changed the way community health is practiced in Beaufort County, say health care workers and those who knew him.

Gatch moved from Nebraska to Bluffton in 1962, when the town's population was 300 to 500 and predominantly black. Tourism and affluence were coming toBeaufort County, particularly Hilton Head Island, yet Gatch saw conditions that were almost Third-World. He treated indigent patients other doctors would not because of their inability to pay. Many were dying of pellagra, a disease thought to have been eradicated in the United States. He saw a woman who died of a full-body infestation of maggots. He found 70 percent of black children in the county ages 5 and younger suffered parasitic infestations that drained their energy and stunted their growth.

The root cause? Malnutrition and unsanitary conditions, the latter of which meant patients who received treatment constantly were re-infected.

"We didn't have toilets or running water on the island," said Tom Barnwell Jr., a Hilton Head native. Barnwell met Gatch, whom he describes as the "most caring physician I have ever met," when his mother, a nurse, instructed him to offer help to the overworked doctor. "Help" meant, among other things, staying awake nights at the doctor's home, to protect him from threats against his life, said Barnwell's wife Susan.

Gatch's work became a cause celebre in the North. He was profiled extensively by Esquire magazine and reverently photographed by Diane Arbus. Harlem newspapers published updates on his practice.

The doctor's work attracted the attention of Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, who brought information on the area's poverty before the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in 1969. The hearings were widely covered by the national media, leading to rapid changes in health care in Beaufort County.

Barnwell and another local resident,Roland Gardner, parlayed public outcry from the hearings into improved food stamp programs and sanitation for county residents. By 1970, the first community health center, Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health Services Inc. -- now Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health -- was opened on land donated by Ruth Pruyn Fields, the widow of department store heir Marshall Fields III.Gardner is now the medical center's CEO.

In 1972, the General Assembly spent $100,000 to treat the state's worm problems.

Gatch left community leaders in charge of the health education movement in 1975. He moved to Rough Rock, Ariz., to treat patients on a Navajo reservation. He was killed in 1980 when his jeep overturned in Cambodia, where he was voluntarily treating refugees, according to his former employee Helen Stanislawski.

"He never acted out of pity for his patients," Stanislawski said. "He just saw something that needed to be done and he did it. He lived the way he preached."

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