Dr. Philip E. Sumner in 2002. Now 96, Sumner was a machine gunner with the U.S. Army during World War II before going on to a groundbreaking career in obstetrics.
A 96-year-old Orr’s Island man served as a machine gunner in World War II, helping to liberate Europe from the Nazis — then returned home to become an obstetrician who pioneered modern childbirth methods in America.
Philip E. Sumner grew up in Massachusetts, often vacationing with his family at their property on Lowell’s Cove. Coming of age during the war, he attempted to enlist in the Navy. He failed the physical with an irregular heartbeat, but was soon drafted and passed an Army physical.
Sumner entered active service in August 1943, at the age of 18. He became a heavy machine gunner in the 26th Infantry Division of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army.
“Fortunately I was not wounded, but I was in the front lines for nine months,” Sumner said, from the fall of 1944 to the spring of 1945. His company fought its way through France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
He served in the Battle of the Bulge, a costly but decisive victory for the Allies. The battle raged in the Ardennes Forest from Dec. 16, 1944 to Jan. 25, 1945 and the Americans alone suffered more than 80,000 casualties.
“I could easily have been killed, but the good Lord was with me and I survived,” Sumner said.
Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 and Japan on Sept. 2, 1945. Not yet eligible to return home under the Army’s point system, Sumner studied at a university in Grenoble, France and taught English to French soldiers.
He arrived home on Feb. 12, 1946 and was honorably discharged at Fort Devens, Massachusetts five days later. His rank was private first class. In 1949, he received the Bronze Star Medal for “exemplary conduct in ground combat.”
Like many American soldiers, Sumner brought back souvenirs captured from the Nazis — a dagger, a Luger pistol and a “huge” Nazi flag measuring 9 feet by 15 feet.
Back home in Massachusetts, Sumner graduated from Harvard College and the Tufts University School of Medicine before going into practice as an obstetrician and gynecologist in Connecticut.
Sumner’s wartime experience influenced his career path.
“I liked bringing new life into the world rather than destroying it, which they wanted me to do in the Army,” he said.
For 30 years, he chaired the obstetrics department at Manchester Memorial Hospital. A history of the hospital describes his work.
“In 1969, Manchester Memorial Hospital opened some of the first home-like birthing rooms in a community hospital setting thanks to the advocacy and determination of Dr. Philip Sumner, who was among the first American doctors to study the Lamaze method of childbirth in France,” the history states. “The goal of this pioneering effort was to create a birthing program that is both emotionally fulfilling and medically secure.”
During the postwar baby boom, hospitals would deliver babies in a manner Sumner compared to an assembly line at an auto factory.
“The mother was totally unconscious when she delivered, and the father was out in the waiting room or at the local tavern having a couple of beers,” Sumner told Tufts Medicine magazine in 2011.
Sumner heard about the Lamaze method in the 1960s and it sparked his curiosity. He had friends in France from his time at the Grenoble university, so he decided to visit in 1967 and see the method in action.
Adapted by Dr. Fernand Lamaze from his observations of childbirth in Russia, the method emphasizes education prior to labor and a more natural delivery employing breathing and relaxation techniques.
“It was a revelation,” Sumner said of the French system. The women in labor “were working hard, but they were not fearful.”
Sumner admired the emotional aspect of the method, which encourages constant reassurance from the partner and a nurse. “It was a team effort, which was a beautiful thing to watch,” he told Tufts Medicine.
There were Lamaze educators in the U.S. at the time, but Sumner’s peers were skeptical of the method. Nevertheless, he established “the first birthing room in America” back at Manchester Memorial in 1969, according to his account to Tufts.
Sumner and a colleague co-authored an article about their techniques in a 1976 edition of the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing.
“The combination of medical safety, the warm and secure feelings of the home, and an atmosphere of celebration of childbirth is the aim of the Lamaze program at Manchester Memorial Hospital in Manchester, Connecticut,” they wrote.
The hospital acquired a French labor-delivery bed in 1972 and added another in 1973, as the program grew in popularity. A third was on order at the time of the article’s publication. Manchester patients could still choose a traditional delivery, but most opted for Sumner’s birthing room.
“The integrated concept of a labor-delivery room is one means of further humanizing and simplifying the childbirth experience, while at the same time, providing medical security to the mother and infant,” Sumner and his colleague wrote. “By supplying couples with a beautiful and fun place to have a baby, we are giving them permission to enjoy childbirth and celebrate it.”
Sumner was an evangelist for the method. At medical conferences, other doctors “ridiculed” him, he said in the Tufts interview. Although the obstetrics community has come around in the years since, Sumner said that it never recognized his work to reform childbirth in America.
Sumner often vacationed on Orr’s Island during his career. He retired to the island in 1993 and lived there year-round until 2018.
He served as an emergency medical technician with the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department for a year after retirement and did two stints as commodore of the Orr’s-Bailey Yacht Club. He supported the Orr’s Island Library, which named its Sumner Family Room in honor of his ancestors; and the building of the island’s veterans memorial. He now lives at Thornton Hall in Brunswick.