Not many people live a full century, and few even of that blessed minority still have a competitive edge on the tennis court after their triple-digit birthday. Exhibiting a zest for life, he has stayed involved in activities, academics and relationships that make life meaningful. Whether playing tennis with friends, in the field with bird dogs or participating in weekly Kiwanis Club and Bible study discussions, centenarian Edmund remains engaged.
“When I was born on March 26, 1916, Dr. Jane Bruce Guignard delivered me at home, and she was probably the first female doctor in South Carolina,” he says. “World War I was raging in Europe at the time, and there was an ongoing debate in the United States about whether we should enter the war, which of course we did the following year.”
Columbia was founded on his ancestor Col. Thomas Taylor’s land in 1786. Edmund attended the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where his father had been a professor since Edmund was 10. While there Edmund boxed for a year and a half for UNC, but then got too busy. “I had an assistantship in zoology in addition to fulfilling my pre-med requirements, so I had to stop. I won three matches, lost three and tied three.”
Upon graduation in 1937, Edmund decided to have an adventure abroad before starting medical school at Johns Hopkins. He crossed the Atlantic by ship, and when he landed in Antwerp, Edmund straightaway found a bike shop and asked if they had one large enough for his 6-foot-2-inch frame. The smaller Belgians did not have a bike that size on hand but promised to make him one in three hours’ time. The next morning he began what became a 2,000-mile ride through Europe, including an 11,000-foot summit through the Swiss Alps, on his three-speed bike, sometimes biking 100 miles per day and only spending an average of 75 cents a day.
Edmund little knew that in several years he would be back on a much more serious mission. Riding through Germany, he saw the German storm troopers practicing in the streets. “We knew at that point that Hitler was dangerous,” he says, “but certainly not to the full extent.”
As Edmund passes the 100-year mark, he is still working to establish conservation easements and storm water management systems that will help prevent flooding in our communities.
After graduating from Johns Hopkins Medical School, he completed a one-year surgical residency at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York from 1941 to 1942. When the United States entered World War II, this hospital formed a unit as the 9th Evacuation Hospital, which he joined. Edmund soon found himself in Oxford, England waiting for his deployment. “England was starving,” he says. “We had no meat and ate cabbage for breakfast, lunch and dinner with very weak ale.”
They first followed the front lines to the invasion of North Africa, then to Sicily, Italy, France and lastly Munich, constantly moving to keep up with the line of fighting. Edmund recalls with pride the physicians with whom he worked, saying that they were excellent men and offered the highest level of medical care available anywhere. “We were the first country that ever used blood transfusions in the army to stabilize patients. On one occasion, I was in charge of a ward with 30 patients, each with a bottle of blood going into his arm … I was proud to be part of a medical unit of that caliber,” he remembers. “During the Battle of the Bulge, there was a tremendous number of wounded soldiers. We worked for six weeks day and night with every operating table filled. I remember being utterly exhausted at the end of it. No one ever complained though. We hated boredom more than anything.”
On one occasion, Dr. Taylor narrowly escaped becoming a prisoner of war. When the British forces led by Montgomery fought against the German troops under Rommel at the Kasserine Pass, the hospital unit was operating as usual at a set distance behind the front lines. However, as the wounded came in, they were alerted that the Germans were just on the other side of the hills. “The hospital quickly folded up, and I was in charge of staying to make sure we weren’t leaving anything of importance,” he says. “An English small car came up and said, ‘What in the world are you doing here! You had better get out fast — one strand of barbed wire is all that’s between you and Rommel.’ Fortunately, the Germans didn’t take the smaller pass to where I was.”
Edmund recalls that they treated both their own wounded soldiers as well as those of the enemy with the same high level of care. Furthermore, he was proud to be a part of a country who lent Germany and Japan a hand in rebuilding after the war.
Edmund came by his success and competence in practicing high-quality medicine in high-pressure, stringent circumstances honestly. Not only was his Uncle Julius a surgeon, but Dr. Benjamin Walter Taylor, his grandfather, was a surgeon in the Civil War. The medical director of Wade Hampton’s cavalry of 10,000 men, Dr. Benjamin was in Charleston at the shelling of Fort Sumter and was still fighting the Yankees in North Carolina upon General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. He and Wade Hampton were best friends, their families having had neighboring plantations in now modern Columbia, separated by Gills Creek. Dr. Taylor still has a letter from Wade Hampton addressed to his grandfather, asking Dr. Benjamin to come visit him at High Hampton in Cashiers for some fishing and to bring a keg of whiskey. Dr. Benjamin’s saddlebags are now in the MUSC Museum in Charleston, and, last he heard, Dr. Taylor’s first cousin had possession of their grandfather’s scalpel and would use it to carve the Thanksgiving turkey. “It was a fine blade!” laughs Dr. Taylor.
Edmund and Mary Taylor in London many years ago.
Upon returning to the States, Edmund found that his experience as an army surgeon had been invaluable in equipping him to handle trauma cases. As the appointed chairman of the Emergency Care Committee for South Carolina, Edmund was instrumental in training technicians so that the state was able to offer its first EMTs as well as vehicles supplied with medical equipment. Prior to the reforms, hearses were sent out to convey the injured to the hospital. He also implemented training for the drivers so that there were fewer accidents caused by the racing ambulances.
He chose to reside in the newly developed area of Forest Acres, where he still lives with Mary, his wife of 69 years. “When it would warm up in the summer,” says Georgia Brennecke, his youngest daughter, “Dad would wrassle us out of bed, and we would have to swim across Spring Lake before breakfast. We complained, but we were all able to swim across the lake before the first day of first grade. If we got too tired, we’d hold on to Daddy’s bathing suit, and he’d pull us along.”
Mary and Edmund at Bull’s Island.
Edmund was, and still is, adamant about the advantages of physical exercise. “I made my family play tennis every day,” he says. “Mary would stand at the net and throw balls to the children, and gradually they became better and better. All four of our children turned out to be fine tennis players who still love the game, and the girls both played at the college level.” Mary laughingly quotes George, their youngest son, who once quipped, “Everyone plays but Momma, and she just tries.”
Affectionately called “the patron saint of tennis,” Edmund, at age 100, still loves to get out on the court. “Tennis, walking, hiking, boxing and golf are all activities that have kept me fit over the years. Mary and I walk every day, even when the weather is messy or disagreeable. We’re not quite as fast as we used to be, but we are still working on it.”
And his advice to the next generation? “I’ve learned that to get along in the world, we need to be willing to do a lot of hard work and apply oneself to academics. Also, life is a lot more satisfying if your work is constructive and you are helping others.”
Who currently inspires you?
Mary, my wife, she is quite a lady. I respect and appreciate her great work raising public awareness of environmental issues and being such a good steward of the creation.
What is your favorite book?
Gone with the Wind, though I have not read many novels. I am always reading history, nonfiction. Les Miserables is the greatest book I’ve read. I also love Sir Walter Scott.
What is your secret to staying young?
Mary has kept me young (laughing). We have followed the lines of good health, have practiced self-discipline in eating and general behavior, used alcoholic beverages in moderation, do not smoke and have been committed to taking hard exercise daily.
When did you start playing tennis?
When I was about 10 years old, I got a red ball for 10 cents and started to hit at UNC where my dad was a professor. They had a lot of new courts, and I didn’t have anyone to hit with, so I’d practiced on the backboard next to the university students.
What other activities do you still enjoy now?
I’m too old to enjoy most of them … but I still spend time walking, hitting the tennis ball, hunting, fishing, working on the timber farm, playing bridge, reading, going to church, watching classic movies, bird watching and gathering with friends and family.
What is the single biggest change you’ve witnessed during your lifetime?
The damned computers.
What do you miss most in the modern world we have now?
In today’s world of instant communication and automated messages, there seems to be less human-to-human contact and connection. I miss the intimacy of person-to-person, direct conversation.
How many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren do you have?
Four children –– two girls and two boys. Ten grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
What is the biggest change you have seen take place in Columbia?
Our increasing population has changed the face of Columbia with multiple high rise apartments, the University growth and traffic. Columbia has spilled over into Lexington. The flood last fall impacted our city and state on a scale that cannot be measured. Nothing in my lifetime has come close to the devastation that flood brought to Columbia.
What are your thoughts on the direction the United States is going?
My main objection is the lack of willingness of the politicians to work together to solve the problems of this country.
What do you think is the greatest social change that you have experienced in your lifetime?
The idea of equality of all people — women voting as well as improved race relations. The women’s vote allowed the freedom of the individual. One hundred years ago, men were allowed to beat women with a stick as long as it was smaller than your thumb. Another social change involves greater environmental awareness –– preservation of land and our natural resources. It starts with an idea and a few people talking about it … then change eventually happens.
What has been your favorite restaurant in Columbia during your lifetime?
We don’t eat out very often. The secret to long life is eating at home … not to mention, Mary is the best cook in Columbia. But when we do eat out, Devine Foods is where we end up, and they take good care of us.