May C. Wharton, early twentieth-century medical pioneer on the Cumberland Plateau, was born on a Minnesota farm. A sickly child, she was inspired and encouraged by a family friend and physician who gave her the Home Doctor Book. She attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, from 1890-93, but finished her B.A. at the University of North Dakota in 1894-95. She studied in Europe in 1897 and taught at the University of North Dakota in 1898-99. Finally she chose medicine as her profession and received her medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1905.
After graduation she established a private practice in Atlanta, Georgia, where she met and married Edwin Wharton, a Congregational minister and missionary. In 1907 the couple moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to manage a settlement house, he as director and she as physician. In 1909 the Whartons moved to New Hampshire, where they farmed and she practiced medicine while he served small churches.
In 1917 Wharton and her husband moved to Cumberland County, Tennessee, where Edwin had been appointed as the new principal of Pleasant Hill Academy. Established by the American Missionary Association in 1884, the academy was a boarding school where disadvantaged rural youths could receive a broad education in the liberal arts and sciences as well as vocational training in agriculture and home economics. Dr. Wharton taught health and served as the academy’s physician to staff and students. During the flu epidemic of 1919 she also assisted as many Plateau families as possible. Serving a widely dispersed clientele and traveling on rough country roads by horseback and buggy, Wharton gained a reputation as a compassionate and determined doctor.
Edwin Wharton died in 1920, and his wife decided to stay at Pleasant Hill to continue as the community doctor. Assisted by art teacher Elizabeth Fletcher and Canadian-trained registered nurse Alice Adshead, Wharton established a small three-room hospital almost immediately; by 1922, she had raised enough funds and had sufficient donated land to build the Uplands Sanatorium. After the construction of the Memphis-to-Bristol Highway in 1927, Wharton and her associates provided outreach programs and established small clinics in adjoining communities. A successful New England fund-raising venture in 1932 allowed Wharton to build a general hospital in 1935 and the Van Dyck Annex in 1938. The hospital’s name changed to Cumberland General to reflect the range of services available at the medical institution.
After World War II, Wharton was instrumental in gaining federal, state, and private funding for the modern Cumberland Medical Center. Located in Crossville, it opened with fifty beds in March 1950. Her last project at Pleasant Hill was the creation of the May Cravath Wharton Nursing Home in 1957, later incorporated as Uplands, Inc., a retirement village with homes and apartments. By now, Dr. Wharton’s achievements had been recognized with awards from the Tennessee Medical Association and Carleton College. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Chattanooga in 1957. Wharton died at the age of eighty-six on November 19, 1959.
May Cravath Wharton, Doctor Woman of the Cumberlands: the Autobiography of May Cravath Wharton (1953)