Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

Esther Clark: Palo Alto's pediatrician

by Rick Kushman

Dr. Esther Clark had seen the art of medicine change from a practice in which mustard plasters were prescribed to treat mysterious diseases to a science that can cure almost every major malady.

In fact, she had prescribed a mustard plaster or two herself.

"I wasn't terribly convinced that it had any therapeutic value," she said in an interview in 1979. "But if the patient thought it did, it couldn't hurt."

Clark grew up in Palo Alto. The younger sister of architect Birge Clark, she became in 1926 the second pediatrician to set up a practice on the Peninsula. She was asked then by Dr. Russel Lee to join with him and surgeon Fritz Roth in forming the Palo Alto Medical Clinic.

She was 79 in 1979, but when she spoke of her first days as a physician her face showed her relief that medicine has evolved into a more exact science.

"Up until the '40s we didn't have antibiotics to cure ills from infection," she said. "We had to treat people symptomatically. We could only assist the patient in combating the illness on their own, and we would try to relieve the pain. We weren't always successful.

"I always felt a good sense of relief when the patient didn't die. You got some satisfaction out of knowing you made the child's parents feel good, but you never knew if the patient would have recovered without you."

Parents feared the specter of polio above all else, she recalled. "If a child would complain of feeling poorly in the summer, the parents would call me immediately. I couldn't always diagnose the illness right away, but if I said I didn't know what was wrong, it would cause great anxiety, so I'd look the child over carefully and say, 'Well, it's not polio.'

"Then the parents would say they don't care what else it might be, and that would be that," she said.

Yet more in medicine has changed than just the treatment of illness, Clark said. "Doctors made house calls back then," she said. "People called up and we had no thought of saying, 'Couldn't you come down to the clinic?' "The charge for a house call was $3, and the charge for an office visit was also $3," said Clark. "I'd always carry my equipment for a throat culture and a blood count to try to diagnose the illness. But house calls were a terribly inefficient use of a doctor's time.

"We began to realize that it didn't do the child any harm to travel, and in the clinic we could look at the patient, run tests and decide what to do when the patient was still there.

"Besides, I wasn't doing anybody any good riding up and down the roads all day; it was a wide area to cover and people didn't call in early enough for me to plan a good route," she said.

But travel was easier then, according to Clark. "There were fewer cars and almost no stoplights," she said.

Clark said she had very little trouble with patients not liking her because she was a woman. "People weren't crazy about taking their children to a pediatrician, though. They were used to the family doctor."

In 1953, Dr. Clark established the Children's Health Council, a non-profit center that provides outpatient rehabilitation services for children with disabilities. The council now serves hundreds of children annually with a staff of more than 130 employees and 400 volunteers and a budget of nearly $5 million.