Nelson, Arthur Derry M.D.
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a visionary physician and Scottsdale Memorial Health Systems, Inc. President who helped establish family practice as a board-certified specialty, died of complications related to Alzheimer's disease in Arlington, VA, on October 15. He was 89. Nelson graduated from the United States Military Academy in West Point on D-Day in 1944. He trained with the Army Corps of Engineers before being shipped to France to build bridges for the war effort, and shortly afterward paraded down the Champs-Elysees along with thousands of troops celebrating the Liberation of Paris. He rose to the rank of Major and served a three-year tour in Honduras during a mission to unify the North American and Central American armies. In 1950 he received a Master of Science (Civil Engineering) from Harvard. The following year, while teaching chemistry at West Point, he married a physician, Sarah Burton. Nelson left the Army in 1953 and the young couple moved with their first child to Pennsylvania, where they eventually settled in Blue Bell, a suburb of Philadelphia.
Inspired by his wife's career, Nelson attended Temple University School of Medicine while working multiple part-time jobs, then joined Sarah in a private general practice located in their home. Old-fashioned, small-town family physicians, "Dr. Sally" and "Dr. Art" made house calls, including in the middle of the night, and charged patients on a sliding scale, according to ability to pay. Their three children considered the office an extended part of their playground and were permitted, during off hours, to listen for heartbeats with stethoscopes, convert extra plastic syringes to squirt guns, and steal away tongue depressors for use in art projects.
After three years of practice, Nelson taught public health and community medicine at Temple University School of Medicine and later became Executive Director of Temple University Hospital.
It was during this period that Nelson began focusing on elevating family practice to a board-certified specialty. Joining with fourteen other visionaries, he served on the first board of directors (1969-74) for the American Board of Family Practice (ABFP), including in the role of President. The ABFP successfully gained American Medical Association approval to create the specialty of family practice (now called family medicine).
In 1972, he accepted an appointment as Hospital Director for Maricopa County General Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1974, he directed the new Family Practice Residency Program at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, and graduated one of the nation's first classes of family practice specialists.
From 1976 to 1985, he served as President of Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, which in 1982 became Scottsdale Memorial Health Systems, Inc. Under his leadership, the hospital's services more than doubled. Nelson established four ambulatory care centers and built a second hospital - Scottsdale Memorial Hospital-North - in a then-unpopulated section of the city.
He also persuaded the Mayo Clinic to open a branch in Scottsdale, while simultaneously persuading other area hospitals that recruiting the "best of the best" to the Valley of the Sun would not be a competitive disadvantage but would instead become "the rising tide to lift all boats." Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1923, the son of Hattie and Nathan, Nelson's favorite sayings included: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem"; "First, don't panic"; and "Don't argue with idiots." Nelson's marriage to his first wife ended in 1983. His marriage to a second wife, Arizona car dealer Linda Brock, ended in 2004. That same year, Nelson was diagnosed with early Alzheimer's and moved to Arlington, Virginia to live near his daughter Mariah. Nelson is survived by his brother, Gilbert Nelson, of Hingham, Massachusetts; his children: Carol Nelson Shepherd of Philadelphia, Peter Martin Nelson of Los Angeles, and Mariah Burton Nelson of Arlington, VA; and six grandchildren.
Published in The Arizona Republic on Oct. 28, 2012