Dr. Joseph Hamilton Hilsman Jr. of Atlanta died on Jan. 18, just four days before his 103rd birthday.
Joseph Hilsman knew at a very young age that he wanted to be a doctor, and he never wavered. He pursued that goal through medical school at Vanderbilt University and as a U. S. Army medical officer on World War II battlefields who participated in liberating the Buchenwald concentration camp. Hilsman not only became a physician but enjoyed a career that spanned more than four decades and was the first gastroenterologist at Piedmont Hospital.
“My father always claimed that he wanted to be a doctor since he was in diapers, and it probably wasn’t far from the truth,” said Hilsman’s son, Joseph “Skip” Hamilton Hilsman III of Atlanta. “When I was a teenager and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, he couldn’t understand that. He not only always knew his calling and followed it, but he was very, very good at it. He chose a profession in which he excelled in every way.”
“My father enjoyed a long, productive life and was sharp until the end,” he added. “His longevity is probably due in no small part to his belief in keeping busy and avoiding excesses. He did things he loved to do, spent time with people he cared about and who cared about him, and led a wonderful, full life.”
Hilsman was born at home at 13th Street and West Peachtree on Jan. 22, 1914, one of four children of Joseph Hamilton Hilsman and Mary Bogle Hilsman. He attended Spring Street School and Boys High School for a year before going to the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he played on the tennis and baseball teams. He graduated from the University of Georgia in 1936 and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 1941.
Hilsman was in the Vanderbilt ROTC and was inducted into the Army in the spring of 1942, months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He became an instructor at Camp Picket, Virginia, giving first aid courses, digging foxholes and inspecting kitchens. He was sent to Camp Adair in Oregon the next spring as a battalion surgeon. During his year there, he volunteered for duty overseas, but his commanding officer said since he was the only physician on the base he could not be spared.
In 1944, he went to England with the 558th Field Artillery Battalion and was there until after the invasion of Normandy, then moved with the Third Army until the Battle of the Bulge. Later, he volunteered as a medical officer for the Fifth Rangers. Hilsman was eventually assigned to the military police and was one of the first medical officers to liberate Buchenwald.
“I think the personal experience he had there, seeing the horrors at Buchenwald and knowing there were so many people beyond help, deepened his resolve to help others through the practice of medicine,” Skip Hilsman said. “He said here wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t think of that experience and all those lives lost.”
After being away from a hospital environment four years in the Army, in 1946, Hilsman redid his internship at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. He then spent a year at Grady Hospital in Atlanta and a year at the University of Pennsylvania completing a fellowship in gastrointestinal disease. He returned to Atlanta and within a few years joined Piedmont Hospital where “Dr. Joe” became the first gastroenterologist on the staff. He closed his gastroenterology practice in the late 1980s but later returned to Piedmont as an emergency room doctor, where he was appointed medical director.
Dr. W. Perry Ballard III, an oncologist at Piedmont, described his friend and fellow physician as a mentor and role model who was “totally dedicated to his patients and his profession.
“We all greatly admired him,” Ballard said. “When most doctors close their practice, they go off to relax and play golf. Not Joe. He never slowed up. After leaving his gastroenterology practice, he came back to work in the emergency room at Piedmont. He had boundless energy and enthusiasm for medicine and his patients.”
After finally retiring in 1995, Hilsman went to work in an auto body shop to focus on his hobby of restoring old Volkswagen Beetles and Karmann Ghias. In his later years, he spent time with family, read military books and traveled. He was a longtime member of the Piedmont Driving Club and First Presbyterian Church and a founding member of the David, Helen and Marian Woodward Fund.
Hilsman is survived by his wife, Vangie House McKenzie Hilsman of Atlanta; his three sons, Joseph “Skip” Hamilton Hilsman III, David L. Hilsman and Clayton W. Hilsman; a step-daughter, Jenny McKenzie Stebbins, and a stepson, Ray McKenzie, all of Atlanta; and nine grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
A private burial service was scheduled Jan. 26 at Westview Cemetery followed by a memorial reception hosted by the family in the McRae Auditorium at Piedmont Hospital. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Piedmont Healthcare Foundation, Piedmont Atlanta Hospital Emergency Department General Fund.