Watson died early Wednesday at University, where he began practicing in 1947 and delivered an estimated 15,000 babies over a 50 year-span as an obstetrician.
He attended the wedding of a grandson Saturday and “they said he never looked better,” said Dr. George Williams, a partner with Watson at Obstetrics and Gynecology Associates of Augusta:
“He was greeting people and smiling.”
Later, Watson apparently fell at home and hit his head and was admitted to the intensive care unit at University, Williams said.
He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Audrey; five children, Donah Watson Cooper, Ben Gamewell Watson, Kathy Watson, Betsy Watson Corbin and Mary Watson Allen; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Services will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church in North Augusta.
Watson’s death left a “cloud” over University, and the loss was palpable in the hallways, said Dr. William Barfield, who met Watson as a student at the Medical College of Georgia, where Watson was also the obstetrics instructor for six decades in addition to having a bustling practice.
“I don’t think many people in their life walk side by side with a legend,” Barfield said. “But I think he was a living legend for the last 30 years.”
Watson’s story reflects the recent history of South Carolina and the nation. In high school in Edgefield County, his agriculture teacher was Strom Thurmond, who had yet begun to embark on his own long career as a U.S. senator.
He graduated in 1931 from The Citadel in the Great Depression, and when a promised job fell through, he returned to the family farm. Watson talked about walking the miles to Augusta to buy a mule, which he then plowed behind barefoot.
He taught school and coached football before being accepted to medical school at MCG, which took the intervention of Georgia’s governor because there was a dispute over residency. Watson’s military service delayed the beginning of his private practice but also inspired him to marry his wife. He went to University in 1947 and never left.
Hundreds of Augusta families have stories of his dedication, of showing up in the middle of the night on his day off to deliver a child.
Even late in his career, he was a tireless partner, Williams said. If a younger colleague looked worn out, “He’d say, ‘I’ll take the call for you,’ ” Williams said. “He was just glad to do it. With that kind of example, I could never complain.”
After meeting him as a medical student in the mid-1960s, Barfield became one of thousands of medical students and hundreds of residents taught by Watson over the decades at University and MCG.
“He taught by example,” Barfield said. “He taught you not only to be a physician but how to live your life. He always would say that the most important thing in your life is God and your family and then your profession.”
Watson had an encyclopedic knowledge of past practices but still stayed current with the medical journals, Barfield said.
“He always kept up, even when he didn’t have to,” Barfield said. “He would go and study and take the certification test, even though he was grandfathered, because he just wanted to make sure he did it.”
In an interview late in his career, Watson said he probably could not remember all of the thousands of babies he delivered but could remember every difficult case and the few he lost.
“He could tell you names and everything about it,” Williams said.
Despite all of his accomplishments, Watson never sought honors. Later in his career, his wife would even have to trick him into attending birthday parties.
When University decided to name its Women’s Center after him in 1998, he was genuinely appreciative but didn’t really want the fanfare.
“I wish they had done it and that was it,” he said then, taking a moment from seeing patients to talk in his office.
He also loved football, and even as he was discussing that honor in 1998, he was just as excited talking about the game.
“If I ever retire,” he said seriously, “I’d like to get on as an assistant coach.”