Life Stories

Life Stories: Dr. Bill Cromartie had a vision for health care’s future

CorrespondentMarch 31, 2013 

  • Dr. William “Bill” James Cromartie

    Born: May 19, 1913.

    1933: Graduates from the University of Alabama.

    1937: Earns medical degree from Emory University.

    1942-1946: Serves in the U.S. Army, later awarded the Legion of Merit.

    1945: Marries Josephine Colter Rule.

    1951: Begins tenure at the UNC School of Medicine.

    1983: Receives the Medical Alumni Association Distinguished Faculty Award from UNC.

    1985: Retires.

    1989: Receives the Alumni Distinguished Service Award from UNC

    2005: Widowed.

    Died: Jan. 28, 2013.

Growing up in rural Bladen County, Bill Cromartie sometimes went along when his father, a country doctor, visited his patients.

As a result, Bill Cromartie saw the kind of bodily damage a 12-gauge shotgun can inflict and the ways disease can find barefoot children. Vaccines and antibiotics proved life-changing, in many cases life-saving. His father treated everyone, regardless of ability to pay, and his compensation sometimes came in the form of chickens or produce.

When it came time for William Cromartie to choose his own career path, he followed his father’s footsteps into medicine.

Dr. William Cromartie would go on to contribute to health care throughout the state as a researcher and educator as well as a lobbyist. The longtime Chapel Hill resident died last month at 99.

For most of those years he worked both privately and publicly to bring quality health care to all North Carolinians. His early research focused on curing rheumatic fever, an infection that most often afflicts children and can be deadly.

He joined the faculty at the UNC School of Medicine in 1951 as the program went from two to four years and the North Carolina Memorial Hospital was opening. In the 1960s he helped begin a statewide community training system that sought to bring medical care to rural areas short on primary care physicians. It would become the foundation for North Carolina Area Health Education Centers system, his family said.

“He was a rock. He was always calm and under control, and a wonderful teacher,” said Dr. Jim Rose, a former student and retired internist living in Madison, Wis.

During his tenure at UNC, Cromartie served as chief of infectious disease services, associate dean for clinical sciences and chief of staff before retiring in 1985.

The alumni distinguished professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology would remain vocal about his feelings that medical care should not be a privilege, and he did so by writing numerous opinions for The News & Observer, many of them written well into his 80s.

Learning from WWII ‘horrors’

Some of his earliest medical work took place abroad during his time in the U.S. Army. Cromartie headed part of the Alsos Mission, where he interrogated captured German scientists about nuclear, biological and chemical weapons development. The mission, part of the Manhattan Project, found him present for the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

“He saw, really, the horrors of these camps,” said Jamie Cromartie, of Egg Harbor City, N.J., the oldest of his five children. “You certainly had the sense that many of his convictions were tied to those experiences.”

Cromartie did not often speak about his time in the Army, but he was always clear that bigotry was never to be tolerated. He told his children that he knew where bigotry led. He had seen it first-hand. For someone raised in the rural South during the 20s and 30s, Cromartie came to hold strongly progressive values, his family said.

“He was very much a New Deal Democrat,” said his daughter, Martha Henderson, of Madison, Wis.

He helped found the Community Church of Chapel Hill, now the Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist, which was opened in response to the Presbyterian Church’s segregation policy of the era. “He never dealt with people in categories,” Jamie Cromartie said. “People were people, as far as he was concerned. I do think that real bigotry, and real narrow-mindedness offended him very much.”

Cromartie practiced his belief in quality health care at home, making sure all of his children received vaccinations and preventive care, a concept that was just taking root.

In retirement, he and his wife, Jo, enjoyed spending time on the Outer Banks. They were married 60 years, having met while she was a lieutenant in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and a cryptographer working for the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. “The story we always heard was they met on the steps of the old Navy building and it was love at first sight,” John Cromartie said.

Sometime after his retirement in 1985, Cromartie approached state Rep. Verla Insko with a binder. It was full of research he had compiled showing the history of health care in the state of North Carolina – and a dismal history it was. Insko can still remember reading one fact over and over, unable to believe that during World War II, 58 percent of draftees in the state failed the medical exam.

“It influenced me. We had made a lot of progress but still had a long way to go,” Insko said. In 1999 she introduced House Bill 1396, which sought to amend the Constitution of North Carolina to recognize the right to health care. Cromartie publicly supported the bill, always outspoken in his belief that the health care the state legislature enjoyed should be made available to the public at large.

“The passage of this bill would allow the people of North Carolina and their leaders to complete a health care program begun here in 1944,” Cromartie wrote in an column for The News & Observer later that year.

“I think he made a real contribution,” Insko said. “I think he inspired to me to really step out and take a stand on an issue that I knew was going to be a long term commitment.”

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