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Pediatrician was dedicated to work, region, daughters say
Martin Smith

One of Northeast Georgia’s first practicing pediatricians and a champion of childhood immunization has died.

Martin Smith, who operated a pediatric office in Gainesville for 37 years, died Monday. He was 88.

Smith played a major role in the passage of the Vaccination Injury Compensation Act of 1986. Smith authored the bill, which sought to compensate children who had injurious reactions to vaccines, and helped push it through Congress "virtually himself," said his oldest daughter, Susan Elfstrom.

Elfstrom said her father’s heart was in Gainesville, and his passion for children’s health took up most of his time.

Smith served as chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics from 1966 to 1969 and later served as the organization’s president in 1985 and 1986. Even in his retirement, Smith had regular conversations with other physicians across the country about health care issues.

"That was his free time to a large extent," Elfstrom said. "... Patients came to our house, and he made house calls in the early days. And it took everything when we were little — his work took all of him."

Smith’s decision to become a doctor was the culmination of a number of childhood events, said Smith’s youngest daughter, Mary Gillis Reins.

Smith had two brothers and a younger sister who died of sudden infant death syndrome. The death of his sister, along with the experience Smith’s brother had with the disease Saint Vitus’ dance and his mother with an infected gallbladder, "left a deep impression" on the young Smith and "helped conspire to bring him to his own vocation" at an early age, Reins said.

But Smith’s mother had designs for her three sons, Reins said.

"His mother said she wanted a doctor, a lawyer and a preacher in her sons," Reins said. "The oldest became a lawyer and judge; and the middle did not become a preacher but became quite a man of the people; and my dad became a doctor."

Smith’s vocation pervaded every aspect of his life — and, to some extent, the lives of his children.

Reins remembers seeing her father’s lab coat hanging in the bathroom after her father had worked a shift in the emergency room of the Hall County Hospital. She also recalls the few times her father would come home and take her to the top of the hospital to see the colors of the sunset.

"He knew I loved the colors," Reins said.

At times, Reins said she and her sisters would go to her father’s Gainesville practice. As children, they would use the office’s syringes as squirt guns; but as a teenager, Reins said she became aware of her father’s adeptness as a physician.

It was a moment when she passed by one of the examining rooms where her father was seeing a woman and her small baby. The baby was on the table crying, and when Smith put his hand on the baby’s solar plexus, the baby stopped crying.

"It was very sweet to see," Reins said. "I didn’t know that you learned that in medical school, or if that was luck at that moment or it was something inherent in him. I was amazed, though, you know?"

Aside from his passion for children’s health, Martin had "a real sense of place for Gainesville" that he instilled in his three daughters, Elfstrom said.

"His family goes back here a long, long time, and he loved Gainesville’s lure and loved the people he knew and the people he served here," Elfstrom said. "I think he gave us a real anchoring here in North Georgia — in Gainesville."

But her father also passed on a feeling of obligation to contribute to society, Elfstrom said.
"I think he gave us all a sense that we needed to contribute and work for the things we believe in and do something for something bigger than ourselves — I think he instilled that in all of us," Elfstrom said.

At one point, Martin was named "Man of the Year" by a local civic organization, according to a newsletter from Smith’s alma mater, Emory University.

"It was a total surprise to him. And they were reading sort of a little bio about him and then saying who he was, and he stood up and said that he felt like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral, you know? That it was like he was hearing his own obituary," Elfstrom said.

The 1999 Emory newsletter also states that, in 1995, Smith helped get a mobile van going in the Gainesville community to provide health care and immunizations to kids of families without transportation.

Smith was preceded in death by his wife, Mary Selma Gillis. He is survived by two of his daughters: Elfstrom and Reins. He has six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service for Smith will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to the American Academy of Pediatrics.