The Little Doctor

He wasn’t even a real doctor when he first arrived on the New River, but Tom Kennedy spent his life serving the people of Fort Lauderdale.

By: 

John Dolen

Published date: 

Sep. 1, 2016

Fort Lauderdale’s first doctor, a man named Tom Kennedy, arrived here to farm tomatoes in 1899 after a stint in the army as a medic. He was not really a doctor, but since there was no one else in the colony of 50 along the New River with even a medic’s training, he was often summoned for some ailment or another.

The year before he came here, Kennedy was in Palm Beach, where he was hired by an employee of Henry Flagler for two weeks. He was to monitor violent spells for the tycoon’s insane second wife. Kennedy recalled in his diary that there was so little to do he had time “to almost memorize Flint’s Practice of Medicine.”

That came in handy when an outbreak of yellow fever struck South Florida soon after he relocated here. It seemed that nearly every resident of the village later incorporated as Fort Lauderdale had at least a touch of it, and since doctors in Miami and Palm Beach declined calls for help, overwhelmed by their own caseloads, Kennedy took over. Suffering a touch of the fever himself, he still worked relentlessly to provide calomel, Epsom salts and quinine to those suffering from the vomiting and high fever of the disease. He took care of everyone – white, native and black – going from homes to farmhouses to huts. He basically saved the town, while ignoring the peril to himself.

Yet not long after the epidemic, inquiring doctors from the Bureau of Health and the medical communities of Miami and Palm Beach came down on the unlicensed healer. An inquiry was launched. One of the inquisitors was a Dr. Moses from New Orleans.

When the whole story was recounted, the better angels of the medical community won out. In fact, Dr. Moses asked Kennedy to write up a bill for all his efforts, and he would sign and submit it to the U.S. government. Later, Thomas Simpson Kennedy was presented with a nice check.

He invested that in a formal education and earned his medical license from the University of the South (Sewannee) in Tennessee. Afterwards, he returned, married and spent his life practicing medicine in our city.

Accounts of the good doctor, sometimes called “The Little Doctor” because he stood 5'5", contain the comical and ingenious as well as the heroic. Prominent local resident Mrs. Frank Oliver described his tonics as smelling “something worse than red pepper, and the taste of the dose lasted from one to another.” And, she wrote, “the tonic that followed was beyond description” – not in a good way.

One minister told the story of a friend who had too much to drink and was trying to hide the fact from the preacher who was coming to visit. So he tried to eat an onion. Unfortunately it got lodged in his throat, and he was choking when the preacher arrived. They quickly found Kennedy, but he was without his kit. So Kennedy ran outside to the man’s buggy and grabbed the whip. Back inside he got out his jackknife, cut off the wood handle and quickly started whittling and bending the small end of the whip until he got the shape he wanted. Then he gently forced it down the hapless man’s throat pushing the onion on through. The man recovered, often reminding the doctor in later years that “he still owed him a whip.”
Kennedy’s spirit of compassion towards the needy was likely learned from his own childhood. At the age of 4, he witnessed the notorious scorched earth policies of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman as they were visited upon him and his mother on their North Carolina farm. Soldiers burned down their house and all of the crops.

They were left to dig up corn that the horses had left uneaten under the troughs, grinding it up and making cornbread to survive.

Kennedy passed away in 1939 at the age of 78. That year, Mrs. Oliver wrote: “Dr. Kennedy will always be remembered as the pioneer doctor who did more for the sick and suffering than anybody in Broward County…He did all his practicing in a buggy and has never been known to refuse to go when called, no matter how far or how little pay he knew he was going to get.”

Years later, Broward County and the Federal Housing Administration named a new public housing development The Doctor Kennedy Homes. Today those original buildings are gone, but their modern replacements on Broward Boulevard in Sailboat Bend still bear Dr. Kennedy’s name.