WPLN's Curious Nashville project elicits many inquiries about the origins of street names. After multiple questions about Dr. D.B. Todd Jr. Boulevard, it's time to tell the story of one of the most promising surgeons to ever teach at Meharry Medical College.
David B. Todd was a rising star as medicine was beginning to desegregate. He got his M.D. at Meharry in 1956 then leaped into the emerging field of cardiothoracic surgery. He went off to train at the University of Minnesota, which had performed one of the first open-heart surgeries in the world.
Todd returned with a Ph.D.
"So he came back here and was a brilliant component of the department under Dr. Matthew Walker," says long-time Meharry professor Henry Foster.
Walker was a legendary surgeon and D.B. Todd's mentor. The physicians in Minnesota wrote to Walker, saying, as if to a proud father, that Todd finished his Ph.D. oral exam more quickly than any student before because the review panel saw no reason to keep asking questions.
"He remained calm, collected and answered questions as if they were coming out of a computer."
Six years later, Todd performed the first open-heart surgery at Meharry. It was a four-hour operation on a 5-year-old who wanted to go outside and play, according to an article the next day in the Nashville Banner.
Todd told the paper he wanted to work up to one or two open-heart surgeries a week.
"The tragedy is he died extremely young," says Foster, who served as a pallbearer in 1980 as the community grieved the sudden loss of a rising star.
Todd had been at the old Riverside Hospital on Trinity Lane to train its staff to handle more serious conditions. He left to drive back to Meharry but quickly made a U-turn. He was having a heart attack.
"Dr. Todd, are you OK?" the hospital staff asked.
"No," he replied.
And that's when he collapsed, recalls his oldest daughter, Vicki Todd-Stubbs.
They wanted to transfer her dad to Vanderbilt, but there was no time. He died at Riverside before Todd-Stubbs, who was in school at Tennessee State University, even knew her dad had a heart attack.
Todd was just 48 years old.
Perhaps things would have been different if there'd been a heart surgeon like him around, she says. "I often wonder that."
Backed by Meharry administrators, Todd's widow campaigned to rename three miles of of 18th Avenue that ran by campus and through the heart of historically black neighborhoods. And in 1982, Mayor Richard Fulton unveiled a new street sign at a ceremony with the family all seated on the front row.
But the name is about all people know these days.
"Just out of curiosity, I ask people: ‘Do you know who D.B. Todd is?’" Todd-Stubbs says. "And they'll say, ‘Oh yeah, it's a street.’"
So Todd-Stubbs, who works as a substitute teacher in Metro Schools, tells her students about the first black heart surgeon in town, how his mere presence in an operating room calmed everyone, but also how he'd get home after midnight and a long day of saving lives to kiss his four kids goodnight.
Upon his death, Stubbs wrote a poem in his memory to capture the personal side of her prominent dad. Listen below.