• March 6, 2018

    The Surgeon and the Stone

For more than 30 years, Webb A. Roberts Hospital has loomed over Baylor University Medical Center, part of Baylor Scott & White Health, changing the periphery of the Dallas skyline.

As impressive as the 17-story tower has been in form and function, it is a continuation of the legacy of the building it replaced – Veal Hospital, whose own history was preserved in part thanks to one determined surgeon.

Beautiful History 

Born in 1912 – three years after the building that would become Veal Hospital opened – Robert S. Sparkman, MD, served as chief of surgery at Baylor Dallas from 1969 to 1981.

“He and his wife were very fine individuals and very committed to the surgical profession, and he was very interested in medical education,” says Boone Powell, Jr., former Baylor Dallas president.

In addition to a skilled surgeon on the medical staff, beloved teacher and leader, he had a passion for history – particularly the history of Texas medicine. At the time of his death in 1997, he was writing a history on early Texas physicians, and had previously honored members of the Texas Surgical Society with a gavel he commissioned made of wood from the deck of the battleship Texas. Additionally, he completed a detailed history of the Southern Surgical Association commemorating its 100th anniversary.  

Texas Baptist Memorial Sanitarium – the building that replaced the former Good Samaritan Hospital – opened on Oct. 14, 1909, with 250 beds. In 1959, when Baylor University Hospital was renamed Baylor University Medical Center, the original Texas Baptist Memorial Sanitarium building was renamed the Minnie S. Veal Teaching and Research Hospital. The building was a landmark for Texas medicine. It was history.

“The Veal Building became the first permanent structure Baylor Dallas used for taking care of patients. They used to run the clinic in there and have the teaching program in there,” explains Powell. “The design of the building was really beautiful on the outside.”

The hospital featured handsome Roman columns, intricate artistic carvings and had an overall classical look and feel to the design – like something found on a Northeastern university campus a century ago. Early on, it also was the home of the Department of Surgery offices.

When Powell arrived at Baylor Dallas in 1980, a major effort already was underway to plan for the future of the medical center. The initiative involved various task forces consisting of hundreds of individuals from administrators to physician to employees to community members. When the planning initiative concluded, a number of projects were recommended – the biggest of which was the construction of Roberts Hospital.

But to build Roberts, the Veal Building would have to come down.

Preserving the Past  

“Dr. Sparkman wanted to maintain some connection with that history, and I think that’s the thing that motivated him to do his stunt,” Powell says chuckling.

The stunt Powell is referring to, was the way in which Dr. Sparkman expressed his well-known opposition to the removal of the Veal Building.

“Somebody called and said ‘do you know where Dr. Sparkman is?’” Powell recalls, “He’s on the balcony, and he’s got a shotgun up there.’”

Dr. Sparkman was sitting in a rocking chair on the balcony with his shotgun. There was never any danger, though, as he did it more as a photo-op to make a statement about his displeasure over the decision. It was simply Dr. Sparkman – also a highly decorated World War II veteran – being Dr. Sparkman.

“He made his point,” says Powell.  

A Legend in His Own Right

“Although he was short in stature, he cast a long shadow, particularly for ‘his boys’ – his residents,” writes John C. O’Brien, MD, surgeon on the medical staff, in a 1998 Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings memorial story about Dr. Sparkman. “To have had the opportunity to train under such a superb person was truly a gift.”

Dr. Sparkman was a towering presence both at Baylor Dallas and throughout the local and regional medical community. He served as a Governor of the American College of Surgeons and held the presidencies of the Dallas Society of General Surgeons, the Southern Surgical Association and the Texas Surgical Society, as well as the vice-presidency of the American Surgical Association.

He was also idolized by the residents he trained for both his skill as a teacher and tremendous sense of humor.

“Dr. Sparkman was our surgical father. Just as our own fathers helped us grow and develop, Dr. Sparkman molded us from medical school graduates into caring, capable surgeons,” Dr. O’Brien pens. “When he told us to do something, he followed up with ‘this is only a suggestion, but remember who is making it.’”

Powell credits Dr. Sparkman’s work in building a top-flight surgical education program and his commitment to excellence with raising the profile – and quality of care – at Baylor Dallas, and setting it up to thrive for decades to come. To honor his contributions, the Department of Surgery dedicated the Robert S. Sparkman Library and Conference Center. Meanwhile, the North Texas Chapter of the American College of Surgeons established the Robert S. Sparkman Lectureship.

Saving the Face

While Dr. Sparkman’s antics to save the Veal Building may have crossed the line, his passion for the history of Baylor Dallas helped lead to its preservation. Rather than demolishing the building entirely, the façade with the columns and all its beauty was taken down like an art piece.

More than 30 years after being deconstructed – and more than a century after it was created – the stone and concrete façade remains in storage, in the hopes it can be incorporated into another project at Baylor Scott & White in the future. Perhaps someday, another generation of patients and caregivers will be able to appreciate its history as Dr. Sparkman did.