Local Obituaries

South Miami Hospital co-founder, Dr. James Vaughn, dies at 95

Dr. James Vaughn helped found South Miami Hospital with a group of doctors in 1959. When it opened in 1960, Vaughn was its first chief of staff. Among his patients, famed Serpentarium founder Bill Haast.
Dr. James Vaughn helped found South Miami Hospital with a group of doctors in 1959. When it opened in 1960, Vaughn was its first chief of staff. Among his patients, famed Serpentarium founder Bill Haast.

Dr. James Anderson Vaughn shared a philosophy with his son and granddaughter.

His son, James P. Vaughn, called it a prescription: “Find work or a career that really can help people and that you’re absolutely passionate about. And find a partner who shares your passion for that subject — and a passion for you — and together you will have a wonderful, happy life.”

Vaughn, who died May 14 at 95 of pneumonia, opened a medical practice in South Miami in 1950 with his wife, the late Dr. Phyllis Ann Vaughn. After practicing for nine years, including at Mercy, Variety and Doctors hospitals, Vaughn and a group of doctors met with Dr. Jim Lyons to open South Miami Hospital.

When the hospital opened its doors in 1960, Vaughn was its first chief of staff and served on its medical board for more than 30 years.

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“If there were a person that you would look to to say who was the founding father of South Miami Hospital, I believe that would be Dr. Vaughn,” said Wayne Brackin, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Baptist Health South Florida. Vaughn, Brackin said, admitted the first patient into the hospital — “a Mrs. Jack Davis,” according to records at that time.

Brackin remembers a conversation he had with Vaughn, who was in his 80s and still practicing.

“I gently questioned him on whether his patients ever thought he was too old to practice and he said, ‘All of my older patients are older than me. I kept them alive this long so they trust me.’ He was probably the epitome of all of the good things you would think of when you think of the classic Southern gentleman country doctor. He wasn’t a country doctor intellectually but he had that warmth about him, backed up by exceptional intellect,” said Brackin.

Guys like this have such an immense impact on the community and one day they are gone and it was a life well-lived. He was a tremendous guy.

Wayne Brackin, executive vice president and chief operating officer, South Miami Hospital.

Born in Covington, Georgia, Vaughn pursued his medical degree at the University of Maryland, where he met fellow student, and future wife, Phyllis Ann Peterson, to whom he would propose in 1949.

Vaughn joined some of his fellow medical students in the Army during World War II, and returned to the university to complete his medical education in 1946.

“He was just in awe of the human condition … and enthralled with being able to study medicine and the implications of the beautiful complexity of human biology,” said his son, James, a cancer researcher. Vaughn also inspired his other survivor, his granddaughter Victoria Vaughn.

“My daughter is a filmmaker. ‘The Magnifying Glass’ was about a little girl who discovered all these creatures. That really reflected dad’s awe of nature and science,” said his son.

Vaughn was one of the doctors who treated Bill Haast, the founder of the former Miami Serpentarium, a U.S.1 landmark from 1948 to 1984.

OBIT VAUGHN haast 1967 AP
Bill Haast at his Miami Serpentarium sees eye-to-eye with a King Cobra in this 1967 file photo. Dr. James Vaughn treated Haast for 29 cobra bites. AP Wire Photo AP

In 1954, a bite from a krait, a deadly snake from Thailand, put Haast in an iron lung while Vaughn sourced antivenom from India. Doctors decided to use Haast’s blood plasma as a repository for antivenom treatments and registered its availability with Poison Control.

When Haast died in 2011, at age 100, his wife Nancy Haast said he had survived 172 venomous snakebites, a legacy that left him immunized and that enabled him to donate life-saving blood to 21 victims over the years.

“I am so grateful to all the dedicated doctors who have helped Bill through his many snakebites, and my condolences go out to Dr. Vaughn’s family,” Haast said in an email to the Herald.

Vaughn found that maintaining an anesthesiologist’s doctor bag with oxygen and airway tubes was of great value for car accidents and emergencies.

Early in his career, Vaughn found himself on a cruise ship, the ultimately doomed SS Yarmouth Castle, a vessel that sailed between Miami and Nassau. During his cruise, a mass illness broke out among passengers that led to fears of an epidemic. Vaughn proved the sicknesses were the result of food poisoning, enabling the ship to end quarantine.

(The Yarmouth Castle would turn into one of maritime’s greatest disasters in North American waters a few years after Vaughn’s voyage. In November 1965, the ship erupted in flames, sank, and took the lives of 88 passengers and two crew members after departing Miami.)

Vaughn, who published “A Pioneer Remembers: The Story of South Miami Hospital and the Men and Women Who Built It” in 2008, did house calls. His motto was, “Have bag, will travel” — his practice until he was 83.

Visitation will be 3-5 p.m. Saturday, May 20, at Stanfill Funeral Home, 10545 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest. Services will be at 1 p.m. Sunday, May 21, at Plymouth Congregational Church, 3400 Devon Rd., Coconut Grove. Donations can be made to the Baptist Health Foundation.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen