Dr. Phyllis Pullen, longtime 'country doctor' in Harford County, dies

Dr. Phyllis Pullen, longtime 'country doctor' in Harford County, dies
Dr. Phyllis Pullen was rejected by Johns Hopkins when she applied to its medical school because, but later graduated from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and fulfilled her dream to become a "country doctor." (File / The Baltimiore Sun)

Dr. Phyllis K. Pullen, a self-described country doctor who practiced in her community of Kingsville for more than four decades, died of congestive heart failure Monday at her home. She was 95.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Rugby Road, she was the daughter of Dr. Frank W. Kouwenhoven, an associate professor of engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, and his wife, Alice Witheral.


She was a graduate of Roland Park Country School and obtained a bachelor of science degree in mathematics at Goucher College, where she was named to the Phi Beta Kappa honors society.

She married Keats A. Pullen Jr., an electrical engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and raised three sons. They lived in a 25-room, 1772 miller’s home in Jerusalem, near the border of Harford and Baltimore counties.

She determined that domestic life was too dull.

“I hated housework,” she said in a 1992 article in The Baltimore Sun. “I was bored.”

She tried taking painting classes, but they didn’t help either. “My mother was at wit’s end,” said her son, Paul V. Pullen of Rosedale,

She decided to practice medicine, and began medical school studies in her 30s. She re-enrolled at Goucher and took pre-med courses in biology and chemistry.

"I thought doctors were pretty good, and it would be the best thing in the world," she said.

Johns Hopkins rejected her application for its medical school despite family connections — her uncle, Dr. William B. Kouwenhoven, was professor emeritus of engineering. As inventor of the heart defibrillator, he lectured at the medical school. Nevertheless, she was told that a married woman with children had no place in the school.

“Hopkins told me it was impossible with three children. But they asked if I was interested in research, or in the School of Public Health," she said. “I cried all the way home. I believed them.”

She next approached the University of Maryland School of Medicine admissions committee. She and another female applicant were interviewed by all five doctors on the committee. Maryland granted her admission.

Dr. Pullen graduated in her 97-member class magna cum laude and performed her internship and residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center. She was 35 when she received her medical degree. She had three children at the time — and later had two more.

She established a practice at the roomy Kingsville home. She called herself a country doctor.

"I used to be against women's lib," she said. "I didn't think women should have careers outside the home — until after I did it."

Newspaper articles described her casual waiting room where patients stepped over a lounging dog. She made house calls and dressed “country casual” — she wore jeans. An overstuffed bookcase was brimming with a jumble of family and animal photos.


“Every time we turned around she was adding another four-drawer filing cabinet to hold medical records,” said her son. “After keeping the records five years, she would burn them in a bonfire.”

“I just wanted to be a doctor and take care of patients," Dr. Pullen said. "I wanted to be a general practitioner, that's my idea of what a doctor is. That's what it means to be a doctor, to take care of families from the time they're born until they die. I still like doing it."

She had said that when she first started, “it used to be mostly children with colds, headaches and children's diseases. Now it's older people, mostly at nursing and retirement homes.”

Thirty years after her own graduation, the University of Maryland honored her at a graduation ceremony.

She worked until she was 85 and retired in 2008.

Dr. Pullen bred and raised Norwich terriers and kept Shetland ponies on her property.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at E. F. Lassahn Funeral Home, 11750 Belair Road, Kingsville.

In addition to her son, survivors include three other sons, Peter K. Pullen of Alexandra, Va., Keats A. Pullen III of Sykesville and Andrew W. Pullen of Bel Air; a daughter, Victoria F. Pullen of Christianburg, Va.; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Her husband of 55 years died in 2000.