William Neill III, a licensed physical therapist and athletic trainer whose patients ranged from professional athletes to an American president and even thoroughbred racehorses, died Sept. 15 of prostate cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.
The former longtime Ruxton resident was 90.
“When Bill Neill treated you, you became a friend,” said Oriole Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. “It’s the Bill Neills of the world who keep you on the mound, and if you ever had any questions about your body, he always had answers. He was fabulous.”
The son of Dr. William Neill Jr., a Baltimore surgeon, and Alice Lawrason Buckler, a homemaker, William Neill III was born in Baltimore and raised on Canterbury Road in the city’s Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood.
Even though he was in the Gilman School’s Class of 1945, he graduated in 1944 when he was 18 to enlist in the Navy, where he served as a hospital corpsman. While a student at Gilman, he played football and baseball.
Discharged in 1946, he enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1950. He earned a degree in 1952 in physical therapy from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Allied Medical Services..
Mr. Neill was hired by what was then James Lawrence Kernan Hospital in 1952, where he began a 52-year career as director and chief physical therapist.
“He was hired during the polio epidemic, where he utilized all of his knowledge, compassion and ingenuity to work to strengthen the multitude of crippled children,” said his daughter, Anne Neill “Bee” Peck of Cockeysville.
“He was one of the first in his field after serving in World War II. He had wanted to go into medicine, but I think he had trouble with his chemistry grade,” said John C. Mahoney, a retired Kernan physical therapist who worked alongside Mr. Neill for 40 years.
“His father mentioned this new thing called physical therapy at Penn. Bill applied, and that’s how he became a physical therapist,” said Mr. Mahoney, who lives in Pasadena.
“At the time, there were only two or three physical therapists in the state of Maryland, and most rehabilitation in those days was done by rehabilitation nurses,” he said. “Bill went to work at Kernan, which in those days was a polio hospital.”
The Dickeyville rehabilitation facility, now the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute, also treated children with childhood diseases such as tuberculosis of the bone, osteomyelitis and cerebral palsy.
One of Mr. Neill’s polio patients was a young women who was engaged to be married.
“He taught the girl to walk so she could walk down the aisle on her wedding day, and since she had no dad, she asked Bill if he would give her away,” recalled Mr. Mahoney.
After a polio vaccine was discovered, Mr. Neill became head of the hospital’s fledgling outpatient orthopedic division, where he pioneered the use of heavy exercise to help rehabilitate patients.
“Historically, we were treating athletes at this hospital long before sports medicine became such a popular title,” Mr. Neill told The Baltimore Sun in 1987. “We just didn’t put a fancy handle on it.”
Mr. O’Neill was instrumental in the development of physical therapy for sports-related injuries and “helped train many of Baltimore’s most prominent orthopedic surgeons,” according to a Kernan profile of Mr. Neill.
From 1954 to 1974, Mr. Neill was a physical therapist and assistant athletic trainer for the Baltimore Colts, working closely with famed athletic trainer Ed Block. He also worked with the Ravens, Bullets, Blast, Bayhawks, Skipjacks, the University of Maryland Terrapins and the Maryland State Police.
He treated prominent athletes in all sports, including Mr. Palmer, basketball players Wes Unseld, and Earl Monroe, Olympic skater Dorothy Hamill, football players Art Donovan, Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti and Raymond Berry, and golfer Carol Mann.
“I first saw Bill in 1969. I was having back problems and one of my legs was shorter than the other,” Mr. Palmer said.
“When you had problems, you went to Kernan’s; I practically lived there,” he said. “Bill was positive and everything you wanted in a therapist. He not only helped your body, he also helped your mind.”
Mr. Neill also cared for weekend athletes who had overdone it.
Mr. Mahoney described Mr. Neill as “very quiet and unassuming. And here was a guy who knew everybody.”
President Jimmy Carter sought Mr. Neill’s expertise in 1979 for a series of exercises and a stretching regimen.
“After the Bullets moved to Washington and became the Capitals, President Carter was sitting in owner Abe Pollin’s box watching a playoff game when he complained about a leg injury,” Mr. Mahoney said. Mr. Pollin “told him, ‘Call Bill Neill at Kernan’s.’ ”
President Carter, who ran six miles a day, had injured a groin muscle while running on an uneven surface while vacationing at a Georgia beach.
“We were sent over with a Maryland State Police escort and rolled right up to the White House gates and told the guards that we were here to treat the president,” Mr. Mahoney said.
“Carter was very friendly and down to earth. We took care of him three days a week for a month,” he said. “When we were finished, he gave us a tour of the White House, including all of the private rooms, and then we went to the Oval Office where he reached into his desk and gave us each a pen. We had a great time together.”
Mr. Neill told the old Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1986 interview that he had been exercising since he was “a typical skinny kid.”
In addition to his work at Kernan, he was professor of anatomy and orthopedics for two decades at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“I pioneered the development of evaluation and treatment models, protocols amd practices that serve as a model for the study of sports medicine and orthopaedic programs across the country,” Mr. Neill wrote in a biographical profile. “Much of this work has focused on in-depth study of anatomy and physiology and the mechanism of sports injury.”
“He also studied the effects of injuries on football and baseball players, which put him ahead of the curve,” Mr. Palmer said.
In 1971, Mr. Neill was summoned to Pimlico by trainer Bill Christmas to examine several racehorses, and he brought along a machine that used electrical waves to help pinpoint the exact location of pain. He also fabricated splints that protected a horse’s hind legs when it hit the rail.
Mr. Neill, who retired in 2004, remained a Kernan consultant until 2005.
“I planned to work at Kernan for one year after graduation from physical therapy school to pick Bill’s brain,” Mr. Mahoney said. “Forty years later, I was still picking Bill’s brain. Not only was he my lifetime mentor and father figure, he was also my best friend.”
Mr. Neill’s professional memberships included the American Physical Therapy Association, American College of Sports Medicine, National Athletic Trainers Association, American Academy of Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine, and National Strength and Conditioning Association.
A resident of Circle Road in Ruxton from 1953 until 2017, when he moved to Cockeysville, Mr. Neill was a competitive skeet shooter, as well as a poet and cartoonist.
He was a member of the Johns Hopkins Club, Maryland Club, Bachelors Cotillon, Loch Raven Trap and Skeet Club, National Skeet Shooting Association and Amateur Trap Shooting Association.
Mr. Neill was also a member of the Towson American Legion Post, VFW Post 15021 and the American Association of Navy Corpsmen.
His wife of 66 years, the former Henrietta Stuart “Ootsie” Hopper, died this year.
A memorial service for Mr. Neill will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 232 St. Thomas Lane, Owings Mills.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by three grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.