Doc Bennett, Apostle of the Smokies

The legacy of one UNC School of Pharmacy alum stretches far beyond his work as a pharmacist

Story by Carrie Creasy | Published April 4, 2023

Black & White headshot of Kelly Bennett, white haired man with a white beard

Kelly Edmond Bennett’s story begins with his father, Dr. Aurelius McDonald Bennett. In 1888, the lone doctor in rural Western North Carolina registered as a pharmacist. At the turn of the century, Dr. A. M. Bennett operated a full-service clinic without a nearby hospital. He served 15,000 people in addition to an entire Cherokee reservation. At the same time he raised and inspired two sons, Kelly, born 1890, and his younger brother, Percival, born 1893. The two boys assisted patients who visited their father’s clinic above his pharmacy on Everett Street in Bryson City, NC.

Kelly’s juvenile fascination with prescriptions led him to pursue education in Chapel Hill and become a licensed pharmacist himself. He graduated from the UNC School of Pharmacy in 1912 with a Graduate in Pharmacy (PhG) degree. Thereafter, he was known as ‘Doc Bennett.’

A few years later, Percival became a medical doctor at the University of Maryland. Both brothers then returned to Bryson City. “It never entered our minds to settle some place else,” Kelly is quoted saying in an obituary written by John Parris. “I came back and took over the drug store in 1912, and Percival came back in 1917 to share an office with our father.” Working at the very drugstore he had helped his father open in 1905, Doc Bennett was named North Carolina Pharmacist of the Year in 1954. His successful pharmaceutical career is still only a fraction of his important story.

In addition to his position behind the medicine counter, he served on the Board of Education for 20 years, co-founded the Cherokee Historical Association, and faithfully devoted over 30 years to eldership at Bryson City Presbyterian Church.  He was the mayor of Bryson City twice, and he served two terms as a state representative and five terms as a state senator.

However, it was the preservation of the mountains surrounding Swain County that captivated Doc Bennett. His good roads bill from 1919 turned the rural mud tracks into $2 million worth of gravel roads in Swain County. While lumbermen were leveling the forests, he was an integral part of a strategic crusade to save the Smokies. Doc Bennett’s scenic photographs were paired with the words of author Horace Kephart in magazine articles advocating for preservation. His efforts toward the development of a National Park in the region earned Doc Bennett the nickname “Apostle of the Smokies.” In June, 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at ceremonies at Newfound Gap, Doc Bennett was there to bear witness.

Edward Vernon Howell sits on a riverbank lighting a cigarette, c. 1910s

Edward Vernon Howell, photographed by Doc Bennett during a trout fishing trip in the Smokies

An avid photographer, Doc Bennet’s camera explored every cove, every mountain, and every stream with him. The Kelly E. Bennett papers are a special collection at Appalachian State University that includes his personal collection of images: more than 8,000 black and white negatives and 5,000 color slides. His passion for photograph traces back to his time at UNC, when he photographed the School’s first dean, Edward Vernon Howell, while trout fishing.

With his beloved wife of 60 years, Ola Tela, Kelly raised three daughters. His eldest, Mary Alice Bennett Greyer, was the first woman to receive her BS in Pharmacy in North Carolina, and among the first women registered as pharmacists in the state. She ran Bennett’s Drug Store after her graduation in 1935, representing the 3rd generation of Bennetts to do so. When Mary Alice retired in 1991, Bennett’s Drug Store closed its doors. While the building still stands in Bryson City, it is no longer a pharmacy.

In August, 1974, two months after Doc Bennett passed away, the US Board of Geographic Names chose to honor the ‘Apostle of the Smokies’ by naming a peak in his honor. Mount Bennett stands inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, approximately 45 miles northwest of Bryson City, a reminder of the lasting legacy of this great environmentalist, pharmacist, and alumnus of the UNC School of Pharmacy.