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College of Medicine, Class of 1953: Dr. Michael C. Watson's career leads him to missions, outreach

Sept. 18, 2013
By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

Dr. Michael C. Watson initially viewed medicine as an alternative to farming peaches in his family’s Ridge Spring orchards. But his journey took him beyond that, to places he had never heard of and ideas he had never imagined: mission trips in developing countries, desegregation in public schools and transforming a former drug den into an after-school program.

Dr. Watson recently published his memoir, The Cloud Chaser, which hits bookstore shelves in November. The title draws from a conversation with his older brother, Joe, who told him that you can’t catch a cloud on a hot summer day. Determined to prove Joe wrong, Michael ran, chasing the shade the entire way home.

The book’s title serves as a metaphor for his career. From his work at the brand-new Bamberg County hospital and then in private practice, Dr. Watson served his community with an inventive personality that transformed him into a public figure. “I wanted to help people, and there were plenty of people to help in Bamberg County,” he said. 

Teen pregnancy and alcohol and drug abuse numbered among Bamberg’s biggest problems. A woman once left her chronically drunken husband in Dr. Watson’s care. Dr. Watson not only treated the wayward husband, but he helped create and served as chairman of the Tri-County Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, which he continues to lead decades later. He also helped start the region’s only adolescent inpatient drug and alcohol treatment program, which continues today.

Dr. Michael C. Watson: College of Medicine, Class of 1953 / photo provided.

Dr. Watson wound up in Bamberg after graduating from the Medical College of South Carolina and drawing a circle, 50 miles wide, around his home town. He wound up a doctor by a similar stroke of serendipity.

Dr. Watson joined the U.S. Marine Corps shortly just after his 18th birthday and in the height of World War II. After serving for a tour of the Pacific, he returned home and enrolled at Clemson University, unsure about his next move. He climbed onto the tractor in his family’s peach orchard and recognized, at least, what he didn’t want to do.

His father surprised him when he said he hoped Michael would become a doctor. The late Joseph Calhoun Watson survived skin cancer, but the disease left him with a disfigured nose. Recognizing the power and promise of medicine, the elder Watson cosigned on the loan that his son needed to finish his studies at the Medical College of South Carolina in 1953.

Dr. Watson affectionately remembers his medical school professors. One anatomy instructor often became so engrossed in his own lectures that he would take his pipe from his mouth, rest it on the chest of a cadaver and then return it to his mouth. Another instructor, noticing Dr. Watson’s interest in academics versus clinical work, told him to “forget it right now” and pursue a career of working with patients. Educated by a host of characters, Dr. Watson later developed a unique professional persona of his own.

Dr. Biemann Othersen, MUSC Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics and one of Dr. Watson’s classmates, remembered Dr. Watson as a generous man with strong faith and a unique hobby: beekeeping. “At one of our class reunions years ago, he gave a jar of honey to every member of our class,” Dr. Othersen said. “It was good honey, too.”

While working in Bamberg, Dr. Watson once reported a man who refused treatment after testing positive for syphilis, and a sheriff’s deputy hauled the man off to jail. Dr. Watson also watched HIV rise to an epidemic and, when other physicians refused to treat those patients, he felt a personal calling. The first day he hospitalized someone with AIDS, a nurse whispered to him in the hallway. “Dr. Watson, what should I do so I don’t catch AIDS from the patient in Room 19?” she asked. Dr. Watson looked both ways, as if preparing to share a secret with her, and then whispered, “Don’t have sex with him!”

Dr. Watson served on the county school board during integration and wrote an open letter to all parents, asking them not to flee to private school. He and his wife, Mary Carolyn, set an example by keeping their own children in Bamberg County public schools. But when Dr. Watson received word that the U.S. Justice Department wanted integration to begin in the middle of a school year, he refused to disrupt the children’s studies. A government attorney threatened to jail him, but Dr. Watson figured that, by the time the warrant came around, a new school year would have begun.

Of all his accomplishments, Dr. Watson considers his mission work the most significant. His mother belonged to a women’s missionary society at church, which raised money to send volunteers abroad, and Dr. Watson likes to say that he attended his first mission meeting at just 6 months old.

As an adult, he set about establishing lay mission work as a cornerstone of the United Methodist Church. He learned from a staff member with the United Methodist Committee on Relief about a little Caribbean island called Anguilla that was losing its only doctor. Two days later Dr. Watson flew to Anguilla and helped set up a pipeline to bring in a new doctor every two weeks for six months.

After Anguilla, Dr. Watson went to Haiti, where he identified a possible solution to the high infant mortality rate: He inoculated 65,000 women against Tetanus and spared their unborn babies from the illness. He brought over his brother, who eventually did take over the Watson family farm and who introduced collards to Haiti as a nutrient-rich alternative to lettuce. Joe set up an agricultural school and visited Haiti 35 times.

At home in Bamberg, Dr. Watson established one of the first rural hypertension clinics in the Southeast and the first HIV/AIDS clinic within a South Carolina health department. He sold his own practice in 2000 and focused on family and his hobbies, such as woodworking and beekeeping. He still helps run an after-school program in a former drug house that two churches purchased from the Bamberg County sheriff’s office. Asked how he balanced it all – career, family and outreach – Dr. Watson shrugged and said, “You just do it.” 

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