The Evolution of Orthopedics and Arthur Bowman, MD
As he reflects on his nearly 50-year career as an orthopedic surgeon at South Shore Health, Dr. Arthur Bowman knows one thing for certain – Sister Veronica would be proud of him.
The “strict but lovable” nun was Bowman’s principal and teacher at Holy Family High School in Ensley, Alabama. She took a strong interest in the bright young man and became a guiding force during his formative years.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama – an industrial town outside of Birmingham – Bowman is the eldest of Arthur and Bettie Bowman’s three children. His father worked in a steel mill and his mother was a medical assistant for a local doctor, which Bowman said sparked his early interest in medicine.
Bowman’s mother was also the reason he and his brother and sister attended Catholic schools, where they would receive an excellent education and the inspiration to overcome adversity growing up in the segregated south.
“Those were tough times for Black people,” said Bowman, noting the nuns and priests that came to the south as part of Catholic missions to educate Black children, also uplifted them.
“They encouraged us to keep a positive attitude and not let the ‘system’ overwhelm us,” Bowman said. “They instilled in us the confidence to believe, that despite what society is doing to you, you can succeed and overcome these adversities.”
Prepped for success
While many of his teachers were important to his development, Bowman had a special attachment to Sister Veronica, who he described as tough but sweet, with a good heart. Sister Veronica looked out for Bowman and pushed him to succeed.
“She saw something in me I didn’t even appreciate,” said Bowman, who was a good student academically, but admitted he could be mischievous at times.
One such incident, he recalled, took place in his high school chemistry class. Instead of following the assigned lab, Bowman said he decided to be a wise guy and do his own experiment, mixing a bromine compound with an acid, and sending a plume of brown bromine gas throughout the school.
“Sister Veronica threw me out of the lab that day,” he said. Despite the transgression, Sister Veronica continued to guide and encourage her promising student.
When it came time to consider colleges (Bowman was the first in his family to go), Sister Veronica was adamant that he attend a Catholic university, not a state school.
“She said it was to save my soul,” said Bowman, who considered Holy Cross, Notre Dame and Marquette.
His interest in sports factored into the decision.
“I was really into baseball at the time and Milwaukee (Braves) had just beaten the New York Yankees in the World Series, so I chose Marquette,” Bowman said.
Basketball was another interest for Bowman and he was eager to show off his skills during tryouts. Being the first one cut from the team was a humbling experience and Bowman said he decided then, he had better just stick to his studies.
Finding his field in Flint
Bowman’s focus on academics served him well during medical school at Nashville’s Meharry Medical College and his internship at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan.
It was during his internship that Bowman developed an interest in orthopedics.
“I associated with the orthopedic surgeons,” he said. “They were very practical men with athletic interests and I liked their lifestyle and approach.”
Bowman also liked the field itself and said he found orthopedics fit his personality.
“The mechanical situations are what I enjoy in orthopedics,” he said. “I like being able to put bones together with plates and screws. It’s very hands on and manual.”
The cutting edge of joint replacement
Bowman did his orthopedic residency at Carney Hospital in Dorchester, Mass. with rotations at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center).
Fellowship training followed at New England Baptist, which was at the forefront of joint replacement surgery. Dr. Frederick Ayers was another young surgeon learning joint replacement at New England Baptist.
“We were trained to do joint replacements at a very early stage of the procedure,” Bowman said.
That training would bring both Bowman and Ayers to Weymouth in 1974, where together they would build the joint replacement program at South Shore Hospital.
Taking his talents to the South Shore
Invited to join an established orthopedic practice led by Dr. Richard Kilfoyle, Dr. James Dolphin and Dr. John McConville, Bowman said he felt at home on the South Shore from the beginning.
“I liked it here. The medical staff was very kind and supportive,” said Bowman, noting he was the first Black doctor on staff at South Shore Hospital. “There were so many practitioners that were accepting and made me feel comfortable.”
Bowman also met his wife Debra, who was a pediatric nurse at the time, at South Shore Hospital. The two chose to settle down in Norwell, where they raised their five children and still live in the home they purchased in 1975. Like his colleagues, the Norwell community was very welcoming, he said.
Bowman was also welcomed in Weymouth, where he served as team physician for the Weymouth South Wildcats football team from the late 1970s until the early 1990s.
And until a few years ago, Bowman was a fixture at Fourth of July parades and schools across the South Shore as a member of the Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry Regiment – a local Civil War reenactment group he was inspired to join after seeing the 1989 film “Glory.”
Trial and error and evolution
The early days of joint replacement involved a great deal of trial and error, Bowman said.
“We were concerned with the design of prostheses. We worried about infections and weren’t sure how long the devices would last or how long the fixation would hold up,” he said.
“You learn what will work and what won’t through trial and error and time. That’s the only way you progress and evolve in medicine or any other field.”
The evolution of orthopedics during his five decades in the field has been remarkable, Bowman said.
“The devices we used in the early days aren’t in use today – they’re obsolete. And what we’re doing today, 50 years from now will be obsolete," he said.
"You can't imagine how much it's evolved and we still have a long way to go."
Orthopedic methods/approaches and devices have changed over the years, and so too, has the length of surgeries and recovery time for patients, he said.
A hip or knee replacement that once took 3 to 4 hours, can be done in 1 to 2 hours today, Bowman said. Patients once spent a week to 10 days in the hospital following joint replacement surgery, but now healthy people can go home the same day and have a shorter recovery, he said.
During his career, knee and hip replacements and trauma have been Bowman’s specialties within the field, but he said he is intrigued by the replacements of other joints, including shoulders, elbows and ankles – a procedure that Dr. Casey Kuripla now performs at South Shore Hospital.
“I wish I could go back to fellowship training and try some of these things. I’d love to learn how to do these other joints,” Bowman said.
The man, the mentor, the legend
As a young surgeon starting out, Bowman had several influential mentors helping to guide him -- something he has paid forward by mentoring many others in the field during his storied career.
When asked what advice he would give to young orthopedic surgeons just beginning their career, Bowman simply said, “Be humble.”
For some people, arrogance and a feeling of invincibility can be a problem, he said.
“What helps you is you make mistakes along the way. The aim should be to improve your skills, accept your failures and learn from them. Be open minded and willing to learn and realize that your learning does not cease – it’s a continuous process.”
While he stopped performing surgeries earlier this year, Bowman continues to see patients two days a week at South Shore Medical Center. “I want to be taken out of here on my shield,” he joked.
Gratitude is Bowman’s attitude as he nears this 50-year career milestone.
“I’m grateful I’ve been able to continue practicing and that the good Lord has given me good mental health and the physical ability to carry on.”
Bowman is also thankful for Sister Veronica, whose guidance, encouragement and belief in him left an indelible mark on his life.
“Without that, I wouldn’t be here right now.”