A new exhibit at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation’s Heritage Museum is on display, and it pays tribute to one of Winter Garden’s most eminent physicians, Dr. Albert Gleason. The collection traces the time he began practicing medicine in New Jersey up until his retirement in 2004.
Frances Gleason Grubbs, the physician’s daughter, brought the exhibit to life during its debut via Facebook live Thursday, Oct. 22. Jim Crescitelli, operations and program director for the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, conducted the live interview, in which Grubbs spoke of her father’s passion for treating and healing people.
The exhibit includes some of the tools, equipment and furniture used in the doctor’s Winter Garden practice. Gleason would have used his U.S. Navy-issued otoscope to conduct ear exams on service personnel in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Blood pressure gauges were used by Dr. Gordon Dickerson while he worked with Gleason. Other now-obsolete pieces of equipment are on display as well.
Photographs of Gleason throughout his practice adorn the walls.
A medicine cabinet holds original bottles once filled with arnica flowers for pain; boric acid crystals for use as an antiseptic; Campho-Phenique powder to reduce itching from minor skin irritation; and Watkins liniment to relieve minor joint and muscle discomfort in men, horses, cattle, hogs and sheep.
The examination table has its share of stories, too. Crescitelli said an older gentleman saw it and looked for fingernail marks along the sides. The man said he was seeing Gleason for a procedure and the doctor told him to hold on tight. So he did, as evidenced by the marks on the table.
When Gleason sold his office on North Boyd Street to the First United Methodist Church of Winter Garden, members salvaged much of the pieces the doctor left behind.
Among Gleason’s medical ephemera was a book of payments; Grubbs shared one of many stories she heard over the years.
When the doctor first arrived in Florida, he lived with and worked for a Dr. Baker in Perry. Baker asked Gleason to make a house call to one of his patients. After treating the woman, she said she had no money but always paid Baker with a chicken. She put it in the trunk of Gleason’s car, and he took it home to Baker. The payment that day became dinner that evening.
“I can’t tell you how many times we would come home and there would be vegetables by the door,” Grubbs said. “That’s how many people paid.”
Before Gleason served the Winter Garden community, he was serving as a flight surgeon in Europe during World War II and working in Umatilla, Eustis and Orlando. He and his family lived in a small house in Oakland, Grubbs said, and he was making daily rounds in Eustis and Orlando hospitals.
Tired of the commute, he campaigned to bring a hospital to Winter Garden. West Orange Memorial Hospital was constructed in 1952; Gleason had a house built in 1945 — just across the street from where the hospital would be built — and that’s where he lived until his death at age 103.
The doctor was a devoted Catholic, and he and his family drove to St. James Catholic Cathedral in Orlando every Sunday. In addition to bringing the hospital to Winter Garden, Gleason was instrumental in creating a local parish, Resurrection Catholic Church. One of the church’s halls is named for him.
“He was really proud of that,” Grubbs said. “He really thought a lot about the church.”
Crescitelli asked Grubbs what it was like growing up in mid-century Winter Garden as a doctor’s daughter.
“We didn’t know any different,” she said. “It was a small enough town that you could do anything, go out and play — but we knew when the whistle rang at noon that we’d better be home for lunch, and then we better be home by the time the sun went down for supper.”
The city also was small enough that when employees at Davis Pharmacy saw the youngest Gleason daughter riding her tricycle in the middle of Plant Street, they gave her some ice cream and called her mama to come get her.
“You didn’t have to worry about the kids because everyone was looking out for the kids,” Grubbs said.
Gleason was a physician when house calls were common. Grubbs said she remembers the last home visit he made was to Ava Walker in Mount Dora. She also recalls accompanying her father on calls, something each of the Gleason children had the opportunity to do.
Serving his community as a medical doctor was Gleason’s life, Grubbs said.
“That’s what he really loved doing,” she said.
He was dedicated to his patients and to the hospital, making his rounds sometimes until 8:30 or 9 at night. His wife, Georgia, held dinner until he was home to eat with her and their five children.
The only day she can recall her father crying was when West Orange Memorial closed in 1993 and all the patients were transported to the new Health Central hospital in Ocoee. The Gleason Room is named in his honor.
“The reporter asked him how he felt about the transition, and he broke down,” she said. “It was just like, everything he had lived to build was gone as far as he was concerned.”
In his 60 years of practice, he saw four and five generations of some families.
When he retired in 2004 at the age of 92, he made sure to keep his prescription pad handy so he could still prescribe medication, Grubbs said.
“He finally gave that up, and he looked at myself and my husband and said, ‘Well, I guess I’m not a doctor anymore,’” she said. “I said, ‘You’re a doctor until the day you die, whether or not you’re practicing.’
“Winter Garden was his life, and medicine was his life,” she said.