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An incredible woman’s quest to become a physical therapist

October 15, 2011

For Starkville Daily News

Celia Robson’s quest to become a physical therapist started many years ago even before she knew what it was. She was graduated from Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College) in 1941 with a double major in physical education and biology and a double minor in health education and English. She then taught biology and coached basketball, baseball and football for five years in Georgia. When her students and players were hurt, she took care of them. She had taken a Red Cross course in first aid and a nursing course. She had also taken the courses offered on “What To Do For A Hurt Knee, Ankle, etc.”  She had the school to buy all the splints for taking care of the kids. When one was hurt, she said, “I would ‘tie’ him up in a splint and take him to the doctor because of the pain. Nine times out of ten, the doctor wouldn’t do anything else but say, ‘Let them wear the splint six weeks. What she has done is absolutely the right thing.’”
She had told her father a lot of things like this, so he thought she would choose to go to medical school. However, all her uncles had declared that they would not allow a woman to be a doctor in their family. 
Her father delivered mail on the railroad, and one day he saw a piece of mail indicating the need for physical therapists. He wrote to the National Polio Foundation who was giving fellowships and got all the information.
One weekend when she was home, her father said, “Celia, I got this information for you. I don’t know if you are interested or not,” and he gave it to her. She wrote to the National Polio Foundation, and it took her a year of writing and doing things before she was accepted. Then she had to choose a school. At that time, there were only seven medical schools in the whole country offering physical therapy and Duke was the only one in the South close to home. There was one in California, but she did not want to go that far from home.
She had signed a contract to teach in Bartow, Fla., and two days later received a call saying she had been admitted to Duke University. She told them that she had just signed a contract and did not want to break it. They wanted her to come right then, but she asked if they would put her in the next class and place her name at the top of the list. They did. She just showed up the next year and went to work on her physical therapy degree. She went for eighteen months graduated in September 1947.
This was right after the war, so all the medical schools were full of veterans. Some of the veterans were doctors who were back in medical school specializing, and they were also helping teach.
Celia had been at Duke about three months when she was called in and asked about changing her major from physical therapy to medical school because of a hand that she had dissected to perfection. She said, “I was enjoying physical therapy so much that I did not want to change majors. I did have a chance to go to medical school. In the long run, I did better by staying in physical therapy.”
It was at Duke that she met Jack C. Hughston, M.D., orthopedist, founder of the Hughston Clinic, and one of the pioneers of sports medicine. He had been her anatomy professor.
One Saturday, Dr. Hughston was looking for someone to help him. There was no one in the medical building, so he came upstairs to the anatomy lab where I was working on my little cadaver and he said, “How about putting that boy up and coming downstairs, for I need some help with an emergency.” A bad wreck had just happened. The man had a broken pelvis, broken leg and a broken back. Dr. Hughston had managed to get a body cast on him for all those breaks. He said to Celia, “I’ve got to have your help in holding these legs while I set them.” He showed me how to grab them, how to hold the toes, heel and to lean back to keep traction on them all the time. Celia said, “I leaned back and something snapped,” and he said, “That is fine. You just reduced that fracture. Keep going.” He started wrapping plaster, and she held that man all the while. It took them about three hours and when we were finished, she said,  “Dr. Hughston, you sure have worked hard.” He told her that she had done a beautiful job of holding those arms and legs, keeping them right where he wanted them. Then Dr. Hughston asked her where she was going when she finished physical therapy school. She said, “I’ll go any where there is a good job.” He told her that he might have one but it would be a while because he had to go to Greenville, S.C. and work for the Shriners Crippled Children’s Hospital for two years. 
Her first job after graduation was to work for the National Polio Foundation which had sent her to Duke. She was then transferred because people quit having polio, and most of the wards were closed. An army base in North Carolina was turned into an “Iron Lung Center” where a lot of polio cases were sent. They stayed there for a long time until they could be sent home with modern equipment that could be handled at home.
Celia had bonded with Dr. Hughston and thought he was the smartest man she had ever known. When he was very young, he was invited to join the International Orthopedic Academy, which no one had ever gotten in before they were sixty. He was so smart and kind. He loved his patients and their families and was just a good person. Celia said, “Everything I learned, I learned from him.” 
When she finished Duke University, she went to the Children’s Hospital in South Carolina to ask him if he was still interested in her working for him. He told her that what he needed more than anything was a receptionist/bookkeeper/secretary because he had to have that before he could hire a physical therapist but assured her he was going to hire a physical therapist. Celia was so impressed with him that she said, “What if I go home and take a business course?” She already had a B.S. degree from Georgia State College for Women, a physical therapy degree from Duke University, and now she was going to take a business course just so she could go to work for Dr. Hughston. That is how much admiration she had for him. That was in January, and he was going to open his office the first of July. She then went home, went to business school, learned typing, shorthand, bookkeeping and other things.
When Dr. Hughston opened the Hughston Medical Clinic, she joined him. He found her a room to live in which was $40, which was what he paid her. He said, “I don’t know how you are going to manage to eat. Sarah and I will feed you every once in a while.” Celia said, “Salesmen would come by,” and she found out that salesmen would be glad to take her out and feed her; therefore, she would not let them have an appointment with the doctor unless they fed her. For nineteen months she was paid only $40 a month. Her daddy helped support her, and she had saved some money.
Not long afterward, Dr. Hughston had to have an x-ray technician, and she became his x-ray technician which he had taught her how to do. Celia said, “Dr. Hughston was a brilliant man.” She wanted to learn all she could from him so she did all these things before he hired her as his first physical therapist. From 1948 to 1955, Celia was office manager and head of physical therapy at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga.
Later, Dr. George Robson, Celia’s husband, was employed at Mississippi State as a history professor. There had never been a physical therapist in Starkville. Dr. John C. Longest, Director of the Student Health Center found out about Celia from Dr. Hughston and sought her out for employment in 1962.  Thus, she was the first physical therapist in the town and county.  She took care of football players for years and not just on campus. The doctors said they learned a lot from watching her. She even did a broken neck of a kid who had been thrown from a bull and who the doctors in Jackson thought would never walk again, but she worked with him and he did walk again.
Celia served as physical therapist for the Student Health Center as well as consultant for Rolling Hills Nursing Home, Regional Mental Health Services, Golden Triangle Home Health, Oktibbeha County Hospital, and the State Board of Health for Choctaw, Oktibbeha and Webster counties. She also taught Red Cross swimming lessons to thousands of children who have fond memories of her. 
In 1988, she opened her own Physical Therapy Services Center. Many physical therapy students did their internship under Celia.
In 1975, Celia helped pioneer the way for pool therapy which today is one of the most popular treatments for many conditions. To assist her physical therapy patients in 1990, she made a pool therapy video.
Celia Robson achieved her quest to become an incredible physical therapist. Students. faculty, employees and athletes near and far remember her skills and techniques that she always attributed to Dr. Hughston.
In 1987, she received the Outstanding Mississippi Woman Award at Mississippi State University which happened to be the year she retired. Celia said, “There are many people who have motivated me and who continue to motivate me—my father, my husband, my patients and my co-workers.”
Dr. William Parrish, a professor of history and a close friend of the Robson family said, “Celia Robson is in the business of helping and healing. She not only makes people feel better in body but also in spirit.”
Mississippi State University dedicated the Celia C. Robson Physical Therapy Suite at the Longest Student Health Center. The facility was named for the retired physical therapist that worked at the center for 25 years before retiring in 1988. Dr. Robert K. Collins, health center director said, “Celia played a pioneering role for both students and sports medicine.” Upon retirement, she had a private practice at her home in Starkville until 2006.
Celia was the first to practice physical therapy in Starkville. She holds the 26th license issued by Mississippi, #45 in Georgia and #7909 in the U.S. Her active service totaled 58 years.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center provides The Celia Robson Sports and Orthopedics Physical Therapy Award honoring her. It is presented to the graduating physical therapy student demonstrating exemplary attitude and interest in sports physical therapy.
Kevin Randall, physical therapist at the Longest Student Health Center said, “At age thirteen, I was recovering from knee surgery and went through physical therapy with long-time university physical therapist, Celia Robson, namesake for the Celia Robson Physical Therapy Suite. Interacting with Robson and the students during my therapy sessions and seeing the many goings-on in the facility inspired me to later choose the field for a career.”
Celia celebrated her 91st birthday at her home in Starkville on Sept. 30. As Barbara McKee says, “Celia is one incredible lady.” Much of this information is of recordings Barbara made of Celia before departing for Colorado. She asked me to finish her remarkable story.

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