Family Tree Brings Back Memories of ‘Uncle Pearl’

Dr. John Pearl GiffordSay “Gifford” and locals no doubt think of Randolph’s long-standing hospital. Say “Dr. Gifford” and the hospital’s founder and namesake comes to mind for most. Except Priscilla Carpenter, that is. To Carpenter, “Dr. Gifford” was better known as “Uncle Pearl.”

John Pearl Gifford was the son of an East Randolph farmer who went on to Dartmouth College and then Dartmouth Medical School, graduating as valedictorian in 1897. A respected local physician, he purchased a South Main Street house in 1903 and with two nurses established the hospital there.

Thirty years later in 1933, he nicked a finger on his right hand while performing surgery on a patient with a then-deadly streptococcus infection and died several weeks later.

Nearly 80 years after this death, Gifford – the hospital – still remains at that South Main Street address, and Dr. Gifford remains entrenched in its name and history. In fact, an oversized photo and a biography adorn a wall at the hospital. And now beside it is a newly created Gifford family tree.

The genealogy was created thanks to the efforts of Gifford graphic designer Tammy Hooker; long-time hospital employee Marilyn Sargeant, a great niece of Dr. Gifford; and Sargeant’s sister, Carpenter.

Carpenter, 90, of Randolph, scoured records, relying chiefly on a genealogy created by a cousin and calling relatives to fill in the blanks of the family history that spans six generations. Carpenter relayed the details to Sargeant, who relayed them to Hooker, who created the family tree.

Sargeant, 76, of Randolph Center is too young to remember Uncle Pearl. She was born after his death. Carpenter was 10 when he died and remembers it well for she was suffering from chicken pox at the time. “I was bed-ridden when he died,” says Carpenter.

Uncle Pearl had visited a sick Carpenter at her home before he died. As the local doctor, “he took care of us,” Carpenter says. But in those days there was no such thing as annual exams and well-child visits. “You didn’t go to the doctor’s unless you were sick.”

Dr. Gifford sought treatment for his own hand infection at Deaconess Hospital in Boston. The recommendation, recalls Carpenter, was to amputate but Gifford’s wife, Eliza, refused to allow it because of what it would mean to Dr. Gifford’s surgical career.

Eliza and Dr. Gifford, as the family tree shows, never had children of their own. Eliza Gifford died in 1964.

Sargeant and Carpenter are the last surviving children of Dr. Gifford’s nephew Edson Gifford Sr.

Sargeant has worked at Gifford for more than 40 years. She is Medical Staff Services manager. Sargeant and Carpenter’s mother, Loeata, was also employed by Gifford as a nurse. She graduated from the hospital’s then-nursing school in 1917.

Carpenter remembers her parents visiting Uncle Pearl at the hospital and sitting on an oversized wooden lounge in Dr. Gifford’s office while she waited. That lounge is now in the hospital’s main lobby for use by patients and visitors.

Seeing these pieces of their past, the new family tree and their surname still so prominently displayed on the hospital is a remarkable tribute, the sisters say. “It’s a great honor.”

Gifford's family tree

From left, sisters Priscilla Carpenter of Randolph and Marilyn Sargeant of Randolph Center pose with Gifford Medical Center graphic designer Tammy Hooker of Barre in front of a new family tree at the hospital. The graphic features hospital founder Dr. John Gifford’s genealogy. Dr. Gifford was Carpenter and Sargeant’s great uncle.