SMH-Newtown Honors Dr. John Chenault with Portrait

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The reception area at Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s Internal Medicine Practice in Newtown was more crowded than usual yesterday, and not just with patients. Those coming in for a check-up found themselves navigating a press of TV cameras and Newtown notables, as the community gathered to unveil a special portrait to honor the memory of Dr. John Watson Chenault, the first African-American doctor to open a practice in Sarasota and, in 1961, the first to gain privileges at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Painted by Yekaterina Kaydash, a student at Ringling College of Art and Design, the portrait will be permanently installed in the Newtown clinic.

Chenault arrived in Sarasota area in 1957, already an accomplished physician and orthopedic surgeon. He served as director of the Tuskegee Institute’s Orthopedic Surgery and Polio Center, as administrator of Florida A&M University Hospital and sat on the advisory board for the American Red Cross. Once in Sarasota, in addition to establishing a practice in Newtown, he was building fund chairman of the Old Folks Aid Home in Newtown, now the J.H. Floyd Sunshine Manor, and board member for Sarasota-Manatee Crippled Children’s Clinic and Happiness House, now Easter Seals Southwest Florida. But perhaps his greatest impact for Newtown came in the form of that private practice he operated off Osprey Avenue.

“That was huge for me,” says Walter Gilbert, a longtime Newtown resident and former patient of Chenault, “to be able to walk a couple blocks for a doctor’s office on Osprey, at a time when some doctors wouldn’t see you if you were black.” Chenault also kept a sizable array of books and magazines in the practice, encouraging those in the community to stop by when they pleased and peruse at their leisure. “And that was huge to a 14- 15-year-old kid,” says Gilbert. And when Gilbert saw the Newtown clinic open a bit over a year ago, he thought maybe something was missing. “”It dawned on me that there was nothing here, honoring him in the community,” he says. With the help of Dr. Washington Hill, a former physician with SMH and current advocate for medically underserved communities, the hospital and Ringling College were able to partner and rectify the oversight.

“She really could not have captured his image better,” says Wilhelmine Wiese-Rometsch, director of the internal medicine program at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, of Kaydash’s portrait. And she looks forward to hanging it for all of the physicians, and especially students, who will walk the Newtown clinic halls for years to come. “They will see this portrait everyday,” she says, “to remind them of why we went into medicine in the first place—to give back to the community.”

Pictured: Portrait of Dr. John W. Chenault by Yekaterina Kaydash.

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