75 Years of Caring

By Lynne Anderson

The bedrock value of Winship Cancer Institute is compassion. It only makes sense that it all began with a love story – one that has spanned generations and led to the  remarkable advances Winship is leading today.


Slideshow key

1-2. Robert Winship Woodruff and his mother, Emily Winship Woodruff

3. Emily Winship Woodruff, far right, first row, seated at a gala affair next to husband Ernest  and in front of son Robert Woodruff, standing.

4. The original Robert Winship Clinic was housed in Emory University Hospital. 

5. Robert Winship Woodruff, left; Dr. Elliott Scarborough, center; and Dr. Hugh Wood.

6. The first staff of the Robert Winship Clinic gathered for a group photo. Dr. Elliott Scarborough is seated on the right.

The history of Winship Cancer Institute, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, actually starts with a love story that began in 1883.

The power of this love story has continued through the decades, into more than a century, and it lives at Winship today. Over the years, it inspired millions of dollars of philanthropy and immeasurable compassion. It resulted in thousands upon thousands of people's lives being touched, many of them cured from the disease that claimed the woman at the heart of this story.

Her name was Emily Winship.

She was born in Atlanta in 1867, soon after the Civil War. Her father, Robert Winship, ran Winship Bro. Manufacturing. The company first made railroad ties and, later, Confederate artillery. Sherman put an end to both.

After the war, Winship Bro. Manufacturing was rebuilding, like the rest of Atlanta. By Emily's teenage years, Winship Bro. Manufacturing had risen to become one of the nation's largest foundries, occupying space in downtown Atlanta that is now near the site of the World Congress Center.

Robert Winship's family lived in the fashionable Inman Park section of Atlanta. They happened to live next door to Ernest Woodruff's sister, Annie, who had married Joel Hurt. That's how Ernest Woodruff and Emily Winship met. 

The Winships were devout Methodists. Robert Winship was a trustee of Emory College, and he was considered one of the city's staunchest supporters and most generous philanthropists.

Ernest Woodruff helped his family run their flour milling business, Empire Mills, in Columbus, Georgia, a bustling river city. Empire made flour with such names as "King of Patents", "Snow Flake", and "Silver Leaf".

By 1883, however, flour mills and cotton gins didn't matter to Ernest and Emily. They were young and in love, and Ernest was on a mission to get the beautiful and kind Emily to return his affections.

"How I wish that your love for me could be doubled each day," Ernest wrote in one of many letters to Emily. He sent flowers, he wrote letters, and he tried his best to convince her – and her doting father—that his love for her was true.

"If your father objects to our union, it is very unfortunate, but why should he be cool to the man who adores you," he wrote in one letter.  No doubt, it had to do with Emily leaving her loving family in Atlanta and moving to Columbus. 

Ernest's letters, written in a beautiful script that looks more like artwork than penmanship, are filled with the thrill of being in love. He finally won Emily's father's approval in 1884. He recognized the move to Columbus would be hard for Emily and her parents.

Robert Winship Woodruff

Robert Winship Woodruff donated $50,000 to Emory in 1937 to start the Winship Clinic.

"I often think of your devoted parents and how grateful I should be to them and how much they will miss you," Ernest wrote on Dec. 12, 1884, a few months before the couple married. 

As the wedding date approached, he wrote:

"I hope that tomorrow will be the last day I shall ever address a letter to Miss Emie Winship."

Finally, one day, a letter to her opens with these words, "My precious little wife." It goes on to say, "Every day I feel my unworthiness of such a good wife and only hope to be able to make you half as happy as you have made me."

Robert Winship did indeed miss his oldest daughter. He wrote her soon after her move to Columbus, longing for a letter. "It is true that I have the benefit of all your sweet letters to Mamma and the rest, but sometimes you must address one to your Papa," he wrote in June, 1885. 

When the couple's first child, a son, was born in 1889, they named him Robert Winship Woodruff in honor of Emily's father.

Winship and his namesake grandson were very close. He taught the boy how to hunt and fish, pastimes that gave Woodruff great joy throughout his entire life. 

The couple had a second son, whom they named after his father. They suffered a horrible loss when the young Ernest died of meningitis when he was two.  

With Joel Hurt's strong encouragement and generous invitation, Ernest Woodruff moved his family to Atlanta in 1893 to become involved in the running of several of Mr. Hurt's enterprises, including what was to become the Trust Company of Georgia.

The couple faced another loss when Robert Winship died in 1899. His namesake grandson was almost 10. Emily and her children, particularly young Robert, were devastated.

Ernest became one of the city's most successful businessmen, becoming president of the Trust Company of Georgia. The young romantic who had written that his only goal was to make Emily Winship happy now had a family to support—two other sons had been born to the couple—and empires to build. His greatest achievement may have been putting together the purchase of the Coca-Cola company.

The little boy the couple named after his grandfather later even surpassed his father in achievement, reaching peaks of success in American business unmatched by few in the 20th century.

His generosity to the city he grew up in is legendary. Robert Winship Woodruff's philanthropy to Emory University alone—which totaled several hundred million dollars in his lifetime—would have been enough to secure his name forever in Atlanta.

Woodruff's generosity to Emory all started in 1937, when his mother was dying of breast cancer. Emily Winship Woodruff had had to travel to New York for treatment for her cancer.

It has been said that while Robert Woodruff had no children, he did have two sweethearts—his wife, Nell Hodgson Woodruff, and his mother. His love for both women was boundless. As his father had done, he too had written letters brimming with love to his mother, Emily.

"Give everybody my love, and keep a great deal for yourself," he wrote in May, 1900, when he was 10.

winship radiotherapy treatment

Radiotherapy treatment equipment at the Robert Winship Clinic, circa 1937.

When Emily and Ernest were traveling again in 1902, he wrote, "Hurry on back. I want to see you so badly. Your loving son, R.W. Woodruff."

 While at military school in 1907, he wrote his mother: "Your love prompts me to put forward my best efforts, and I trust I shall always be a comfort to you. Your loving son, R.W. Woodruff."

While Woodruff was not an emotionally demonstrative man, his mother's illness years later was devastating to him.

"I remember when his mother, whom he adored, got sick," recalls Nell Hodgson Watt, niece of Nell Hodgson Woodruff and like a daughter to the couple. He was just crushed at losing Mrs. Woodruff. He said, "I'm going to build a clinic just for cancer, so people will think Emory before they think of any other place."

He and Nell sat by Emily's bedside for days on end.

While Woodruff couldn't stop cancer from robbing him of his beloved mother, he knew he could do something. He could keep her memory alive, honor his grandfather, and fight cancer at the same time.

And so with a $50,000 donation to Emory University, he started the Robert Winship Clinic. It was his first donation to Emory University. He then went to New York's famed Memorial Hospital and hired fellow southerner and Harvard-educated Elliott Scarborough to run the clinic.

Robert Woodruff did not want the word "cancer" used in conjunction with the clinic. "Don't call this a cancer clinic because people won't come," he told Scarborough. A news story from the time talks about X-ray and other "therapeutic machinery," but no word is mentioned of cancer. Woodruff didn't even want newspaper coverage; cancer was too taboo.

"I do not believe there should be a dedication at all," he wrote about plans to mark the opening of the clinic, which occupied the first floor of the east wing of Emory Hospital. Scarborough saw his first patient in 1937.

The clinic faced financial obstacles during its first several years, and Woodruff personally covered the shortfalls.

Through the years, Scarborough developed a reputation in Atlanta and across the nation for his vision and informing the public about cancer.

In 1949, Scarborough was named to the National Advisory Cancer Council. In 1954, long before the U.S. Surgeon General issued warnings about smoking, Scarborough publicly declared that he believed smoking caused lung cancer. In 1955, he was appointed to the board of directors of the American Cancer Society. Meanwhile, the Robert Winship Memorial Clinic was treating thousands of patients a year, saving lives and extending survival times. Cancer was no longer taboo.

With the operations running smoothly, the Winship Clinic was poised to help even more patients.  In 1966, however, bad news came. Scarborough, who had become like a son to Robert Woodruff, had pancreatic cancer. He had only a short time to live.

His biggest concern was that patients would lose confidence in the Winship Clinic if its very heart and soul was dying of the disease himself.

The entire city mourned Scarborough's death. During his nearly 30 years at Winship and Emory, he had earned a reputation as a cancer crusader and first-rate physician. He had attracted other outstanding physicians to join him, and it was one of his key hires, Sam Wilkins, who stepped into the very large shoes left by Elliott Scarborough.

Under Scarborough's direction, Winship Clinic had made a name for itself through its excellent treatment and compassionate care.

A 1956 letter to Woodruff from a patient shows her gratitude for the care she received at Winship Clinic:

"I have great praise for the doctors and nurses there especially Dr. Sam Wilkins...who has given me so much hope and courage...I only go for a check-up every six months now and I have everything to look forward to ahead, having 4 wonderful children and my dear husband and if my days are short, at least I have three years spared to me I never dreamed I could have and again I wish to say from the bottom of my heart Thanks for the Robert Winship Clinic."

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