Hilla Sheriff

Black and white photograph of Hilla Sheriff

Dr. Hilla Sheriff. Image from Columbia City of Women.

(1903-1988)  Born in Pickens County, Sheriff was born to John Washington Sheriff and Mary Lenora Smith. The family moved to Orangeburg when Hilla was still in elementary school. She attended the College of Charleston for two years before transferring to the Medical College of the State of South Carolina, where she received the M.D. in 1926. After an internship at the Hospital of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Sheriff completed residencies in Washington, D.C., and New York City. She opened a pediatrics practice in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1929.

The poverty of her patients and an offer in 1931 to direct the first American units of the American Women’s Hospitals resulted in Sheriff’s move from private practice to the field of public health. Sheriff served as deputy and later chief health officer for Spartanburg County between 1933 and 1940, during which time her responses to endemic diphtheria, pellagra, and tuberculosis; her innovative maternal and child health campaigns; and her contraceptive research for the Milbank Memorial Fund spawned programs throughout the South based on her models. She established the first family-planning clinic associated with a county health department in the United States. 

In 1936 Sheriff received a fellowship to study public health at Harvard University. She became the first American woman to receive the M.P.H. (master of public health) degree from Harvard the next year. In 1940 Sheriff moved to Columbia to become the assistant director of the Board of Health’s Division of Maternal and Child Health. She advanced to director the following year and continued to administer programs for women and children until 1967, when she was promoted to deputy commissioner of the State Board of Health and chief of the Bureau of Community Health Services until retiring in 1974. In 1940 Sheriff married George Henry Zerbst, an ophthalmologist and public health officer who had been one of her medical school instructors eighteen years earlier.

Sheriff’s efforts to train and license lay midwives in South Carolina during the postwar decades reveal the pragmatism that guided her public health policies. Most South Carolina midwives were African American women whose patients were denied the option of an attending physician by poverty and segregation. Sheriff argued that outlawing lay midwifery would not end the practice but would ensure that midwives remained beyond the reach of health officials. She sanctioned the use of licensed midwives during routine deliveries, which raised their status and ensured high levels of participation in the state’s training programs. Sheriff also linked lay practitioners with local nurse midwives and physicians willing to attend difficult births.

After the use of antibiotics controlled many contagious diseases, Sheriff focused state resources on accident prevention, poison control, family planning, and the elimination of child abuse. Sheriff died in Columbia and was buried in Greenlawn Memorial Park.