Looking back: Franklin surgeon retiring

Published 11:49 am Wednesday, January 2, 2019

by Clyde Parker

January 2, 1969

“I give him only three months of taking it easy. He loves his work too much to leave it completely behind!” That was Mrs. Margaret Hirsch’s reaction to her husband’s retirement. Dr. Kurt Hirsch’s last day as Chief Surgeon at Southampton Memorial Hospital was Dec. 31, 1968. Now, the Hirsches will leave Franklin and live in Norfolk.

Dr. Hirsch came to Franklin in September of 1942 in answer to its urgent need during a period when war was responsible for a critical shortage of trained medical personnel throughout the country.

Dr. Hirsch completed medical school in Freiburg, Germany in 1931. From there, he went to a hospital in Berlin, as an intern, only to be thrown out when Adolph Hitler launched the first phase of his infamous assault on the Jewish people in Germany.

“After I was forced to leave that hospital, I went to the Jewish hospital there in Berlin. I worked under the well-known physician, Professor Rosenstein, as a resident doctor, from 1933-37. During that time, I received my surgical training”, said Dr. Hirsch. “While working there, I met my wife. Margaret’s mother was one of my patients at the time.”

In 1937, Hirsch left Berlin to fill the position of chief surgical resident at a hospital in Frankfurt. By this time, conditions in Germany were rapidly becoming unbearable for the Jewish people.

Many families found it necessary to flee the country for fear of imprisonment or even death. Those were bitter days for Kurt Hirsch — days he will never forget.

“We couldn’t go on living under those conditions,” Hirsch sighed. “Margaret and I decided to leave Germany. At the time, it was particularly dangerous for the men in the families. They had to get out of the country as quickly as they could, leaving their families until they could send for them.”

Dr. Hirsch applied for a temporary worker’s permit to work in England as a cabinet maker trainee. He arrived in England in 1939. Mrs. Hirsch, the former Margaret Lotte, who was then a fashion designer in Germany, joined her husband in Manchester, England, three months later.

“I was allowed to leave Germany as a seamstress to make uniforms for the soldiers. But I barely managed to get out. I left only one day before the outbreak of the Polish War. If I had waited another day, the borders would have been closed to me,” she recalls.    

The Hirsches found themselves in Manchester almost penniless. Before leaving Germany, they had been forced to give up everything they owned and had been allowed to keep only ten German Marks — equivalent to $4.

“I had to find some type of work,” Hirsch said. “There were no openings for foreign doctors. During that time, in England, there wasn’t a shortage of physicians. So, I took a job in a furniture factory making cabinets and drawers. I must have made thousands of kitchen cabinets, and I enjoyed doing it.”    

For about a year, Dr. and Mrs. Hirsch lived and worked in England waiting for an opportunity to enter the United States. At that time, there was a set yearly quota of immigrants from each country allowed to enter the U. S. They finally reached New York City on June 21, 1940.

“When we got there, the first thing we did was visit an uncle of mine who had left Germany some years earlier. He greeted me with ‘Happy Birthday!’In all the excitement and confusion, I had forgotten it was, indeed, my birthday,” laughed Hirsch. “We were very relieved and thankful to be in the United States.”

Very soon, Dr. and Mrs. Hirsch left New York for Norfolk where Dr. Hirsch again started from scratch in the medical profession. He went to St. Vincent’s Hospital (now DePaul) where he worked as an intern for the first year and then as a resident.

“From Norfolk, we moved to Draper, Virginia, up in the mountains near Pulaski. The families of the community worked in a big ammunitions plant in Radford. They were in desperate need of a physician,” Hirsch continued. “We stayed for about three months.”        

It was in September 1942 that the Hirsches arrived in Franklin. The town, too, faced an emergency situation because of the lack of doctors. Dr. Hirsch found himself one of three doctors on the staff at Raiford Memorial Hospital.

“Dr. R.L. Raiford, his son Dr. M.B. Raiford, and I worked together doing the work that had to be done. I took care of surgery and obstetrics, which at the time were done on the ground floor of the hospital in the same location formerly used as a store,” he recalled.

“Mary Carey Harris was x-ray technician then. With her help, I did x-ray examinations. During those days, in addition to performing surgery, I practiced general medicine. That’s how great the shortage of doctors was in Franklin.” 

“Those days were hard on the Hirsch family,” Mrs. Hirsch said. “He lived in that hospital and came only to visit us. His work demanded a great deal of his time, and we had to accept that fact along with the fact that he loved his work with all his heart,” she smiled.

The end of World War II brought home Dr. T.A. Morgan, and soon Dr. Henry Gardner joined the staff. With the return of those men and the help of rotating interns and residents from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, the shortage of doctors in Franklin was gradually remedied.

Over the years, Dr. Hirsch passed medical boards in Virginia, New York, and California. In 1951, he was named to the American College of Surgeons in Boston, Massachusetts.

This was a high honor for him, especially since it was, back then, extremely difficult for surgeons with foreign training to be named to the society.     

Dr. and Mrs. Hirsch have two sons, Jack and Harry. Jack, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, served at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, as a physician, until July of 1968.

He and his wife Mimi, and their two young daughters, just moved to Norfolk where he will be working in obstetrics. Harry took basic training with the U. S. Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

In September of 1968, he entered officer candidate school in Georgia. His wife Terri lives in Richmond.

CLYDE PARKER is a retired human resources manager for the former Franklin Equipment Co. and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. His email address is magnolia101@charter.net