Dr. W. V. Cordice Jr. was a quiet, unassuming man of great humility, but he was also a talented surgeon who knew exactly what to do when faced with a crisis. His expertise was tested to the fullest one day in 1958, when the patient was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a key member of a team of doctors at Harlem Hospital that saved King’s life after he had been stabbed by a crazed woman.
Cordice, 94, died on Dec. 29, 2013, in Sioux City, Iowa, according to his granddaughter Jennifer Fournier. He had been living in Iowa since moving from his home in Hollis, Queens, last November to be closer to relatives.
But his legendary status as a doctor was achieved during his years at Harlem Hospital, and no day was more memorable and glorious than when he—along with Dr. Aubré Maynard and Dr. Emil Naclerio—was summoned to remove a letter opener that had been plunged so close to King’s aorta that if he had sneezed, it would have caused a rupture that would have filled his lungs with blood.
A little girl wrote King a letter telling him how glad she was that he didn’t sneeze. If he had—and this is something that King expressed in letters to the doctors—none of the momentous events that define his legacy would have occurred, including his “I Have a Dream” speech, which occurred five years later.
King was at Blumstein’s department store to autograph copies of his book “Stride Toward Freedom” when he was approached by Izola Ware Curry. She asked him if he was King, and when he said yes, she plunged the letter opener into his chest.
Not until he saw the opener protruding from his chest did he realize he had been stabbed. Quick-thinking friends and attendants suggested the weapon not be removed, and an ambulance came and took him to Harlem Hospital.
For many years, people believed that Maynard had performed the surgery, but over the years, it was revealed exactly how the surgery was performed and what role each doctor played. None was more important than Cordice, whose medical knowledge, particularly of the thorax, was of critical significance.
It was during the planning stages of a documentary on the incident, set to be filmed under the direction of Alphonso Cohen, that Cordice explained the details of the operation. After Cordice and Naclerio reviewed the X-rays, they then consulted with Maynard about the best way to proceed.
“He decided that it would be better if he assumed a principal role,” Cordice said of Maynard’s role, “in spite of the fact that he did not do the surgery. We were not going to challenge him because, actually, he was the boss.”
This fact was supported by Naclerio’s son during his appearance on the planned documentary. Naclerio died in 1985; Maynard died in 1999.
Born Walter Vincent Cordice Jr. in Aurora, N.C., on June 16, 1919, he was the son of a doctor who worked for the U.S. Public Health Service during the flu epidemic of 1918. Clearly influenced by his father, Cordice graduated from New York University’s medical school.
Seemingly always involved in historical milestones, he interrupted his internship at Harlem Hospital to be a doctor for the legendary Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. In 1955-1956, he studied in Paris and was part of a team that performed the first open heart surgery in France.
Among the medical positions he held was chief of thoracic and vascular surgery at Harlem Hospital and later the same position at Queens Hospital.
He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Marguerite; his daughters, Michele Boykin, Jocelyn Basnett and Marguerite D. Cordice; his sister, Marion Parham; six grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.