The Legacy of Dr. Waldo Nelson


The legacy of Dr. Waldo Emerson Nelson is omnipresent at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children as well as in pediatric circles throughout the world. Dr. Nelson was a distinguished medical educator, the long-time medical director of St. Christopher's, and is known to the world as the author of the leading textbook of pediatrics, now known as the "Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics."

Considered a paternal figure among St. Chris residents and a man who keep trainees and other physicians sharp, "Bill" as he was known, first came to Philadelphia in 1940 to work at Temple University Hospital. In 1941, he took over full editorship of a pediatrics textbook he had been helping to edit and remained chief editor through 1981. Dr. Nelson involved his entire family in editing the book; he would dictate items from each page and his wife and three children would write them down on index cards. Though his children were not eager to help, Dr. Nelson told them the work was part of their education.

Dr. Nelson's daughter, Ann, wrote a line in the book's index. Under the entry "birds, for the," she listed pages 1 to 1413 - the entire book. The publisher pleaded to keep that entry in future editions of the book, but it only made it to one edition, the seventh, published in 1959.

In his long and distinguished career, Dr. Nelson was also the chairman of the department of pediatrics at Temple University and was the editor of The Journal of Pediatrics from 1959 through 1978.

Born in McClure, Ohio, in 1898, Dr. Nelson's father was a pharmacist who ran a drug and general store. Upon graduating Wittenberg College (now Wittenberg University) in Springfield Ohio, Dr. Nelson planned to attend the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, but had to defer his plans due of financial difficulties. He worked as a mail clerk and eventually as salesman at Willys-Overland Motors, a Toledo, Ohio automobile company best known for its design and production of military and civilian versions of the Jeep. He also worked selling peaches, insurance, magazines and car fenders.

Motivated to enter the field of medicine by the memory of his baby sister who died in infancy, Dr. Nelson was helped by an executive of Willys-Overland to obtain a medical degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1926. Dr. Nelson interned at Cincinnati General Hospital and completed a residency at Cincinnati Children's Hospital in 1929. He joined the hospital's medical staff at a time when insulin was slowly being introduced as the first effective diabetes treatment. He took an interest in children with diabetes, and said one of his proudest accomplishments was establishing a summer camp for diabetic kids.

Dr. Nelson moved to Temple University in 1940. The next year, he took over the full editorship of a pediatrics textbook that he had been helping to edit.

Dr. Nelson died on March 2, 1997 at his home in Gladwyne, PA. He was 98 years old.