William Smiley dies at 92; groundbreaking obstetrician

William L. Smiley, M.D. — one of the first African-American physicians to join the School of Medicine and a renowned obstetrician and health-care policy innovator — died Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005, at a nursing home in Chesterfield, Mo. He was 92.

William Smiley
William Smiley

For more than 65 years, Smiley worked closely with women in the greater St. Louis area to ensure they had healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. He continued caring for patients until he was 88.

“Although he went on to become a national figure in obstetrics and gynecology, an authority on blood disorders in pregnancy and a community leader in St. Louis, most of us will remember him as a kind, unassuming gentleman who devoted his life to improving the care of disadvantaged women and children,” said Will R. Ross, M.D., associate dean and director of the Office of Diversity at the medical school.

Ross recalled that Smiley, even in his late 80s, moved lithely through his busy schedule, acting and looking decades younger than his age as he lent his expertise to colleagues and patients alike.

Longtime patient Lucendia Smith also remembered Smiley for his compassionate care and soft-spoken charm.

“Dr. Smiley was the best of the best,” said Smiley, a lab technician in the Rapid Response Lab at the Siteman Cancer Center. “He had this distinct walk and fast pace that defied his years. But most importantly, he had the best bedside manner. He took time, and he took care, but you had to follow his orders.”

Born in Alabama, Smiley was raised in Akron, Ohio. He earned undergraduate and medical degrees from Ohio State University. In the 1930s, that school’s policy was to admit just two African-American students to each new medical class.

After graduating from medical school in 1937, Smiley and his roommate applied for internships at Kansas City General Hospital.

On the way there, the young doctors stopped at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis to rest for the night.

When one of the interns didn’t show up for work the next day, Smiley stepped in and stayed on.

He became one of five Rosenwald fellows at Phillips Hospital, where he completed his residency.

During World War II, Smiley was acting director of laboratories and pathology at the hospital while continuing to practice obstetrics and gynecology.

He joined the Washington University faculty as an instructor in clinical obstetrics and gynecology in 1950.

In the late 1960s, Smiley presided over the establishment of the first family-planning clinics in St. Louis under the Office of Economic Opportunity, developing prenatal, in-hospital and community assistance for women and their babies.

In 1966, after 30 years of service at Phillips Hospital, Smiley became director of the Maternal Child Health Project for the city and developed policies for the St. Louis Health and Welfare Department.

When the city obtained a Robert Wood Johnson Grant in 1978 to expand its clinics, Smiley became chief of outpatient OB-GYN services while remaining director of the St. Louis Maternal-Child Health Project.

“Dr. Smiley was the principal architect of St. Louis’ maternal health-care program, which was considered a national model for comprehensive women’s health care,” said Ross, also an associate professor of medicine.

Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth added, “Dr. Smiley was one of the outstanding people of this community.

“I have been a great admirer of Dr. Smiley for many years, and I remember so well how his patience and his good sense guided the establishment of the first health center under the Office of Economic Development in the 1960s.”

Smiley was the first African-American president of the St. Louis Obstetrics and Gynecology Society and the first African-American physician to operate at DePaul Hospital.

Smiley also was a member of the obstetrics and gynecology staff at St. Louis Regional Medical Center.

He then served as chief of obstetrics and gynecology for Regional’s ambulatory care division.

He treated patients, recruited doctors and served as an adviser to staff members until his retirement in 2000.

In 1996, the University established the Homer G. Phillips Lecture Series, honoring Smiley and the key role the hospital played in the education of African-American physicians.

In 2003, Smiley was honored by St. Louis ConnectCare (formerly St. Louis Regional Medical Center) when its new urgent-care facility was named the Smiley Urgent Care Center.

He married Adella Taylor of Akron in 1935. She died in 1998.

He is survived by his two daughters, Nina Smiley Wilkins and Michelle Smiley; and grandson; Milton Perry Smiley Wilkins.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to St. Louis ConnectCare, 5535 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112.