92-year-old Mercer alumna a noted doctor and turkey hunter

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A man and woman in hunting clothing and hats are shown in front of a grassy and tree-filled area.
Mercer President William D. Underwood and Dr. Barbara Carlton are shown in 2015, when she took him on a wild turkey hunt. Photo by Todd Smith

Dr. Barbara (Castleberry) Carlton has made a habit of walking on the wild side of life. Right now, she’s enjoying time in the mountains in Cashiers, North Carolina, where she lives from May to September in an 1850s log cabin. The rest of the year, she can be found in Wauchula, Florida, where she’s still involved in the family business and looks forward to wild turkey hunting season. 

From physician to business owner to mother to avid turkey hunter, the Mercer University alumna has taken on a variety of roles with gusto in her 92 years. 

Black and white portrait of a smiling woman with short curly hair, wearing a collared shirt and a pearl necklace.
Dr. Barbara Carlton in 1953. Photo from The Cauldron

Dr. Carlton has remained connected to Mercer. In addition to being a generous donor, she served on the Board of Trustees from 1983-1988 and has been a President’s Club member for more than 25 years, serving as president from 1988-1990.

Dr. Carlton grew up in Lumpkin, Georgia, and enrolled at Mercer in 1949 at the suggestion of her high school principal. She initially considered majoring in physical education before turning her sights to the pre-med track. 

Her chemistry and biology professors set the bar high so that she would be a strong contender when applying to medical school. Apart from her academics, she was active in Alpha Delta Pi sorority, intramural sports and Cardinal Key, and she ran for student body president. She forged lifelong friendships, including with sorority sister Deen (Day) Sanders, who first married Cecil B. Day — namesake of Mercer’s Atlanta campus — and continued his legacy of philanthropy after his death. 

In 1953, Dr. Carlton graduated magna cum laude from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

“(Mercer) prepared me for life, for whatever was coming along,” Dr. Carlton said in a video interview with Mercer in 2021. “I loved my time at Mercer. It gave me the platform to apply to medical school. My time at Mercer was memorable. I have fond memories of all of my experiences there.”

Dr. Carlton applied to medical school at Vanderbilt University, Tulane University and the Medical College of Georgia. Accepted at all three, she chose to attend the latter despite an off-putting first experience at the school while interviewing with the registrar.

“She said, ‘What are you doing here? You’re a woman, and you know you’re going to take a man’s place here on the roster. You’ll probably go a year, get married, and drop out of medical school.’ She was very negative. I was so perplexed,” Dr. Carlton said. 

Dr. Carlton proved herself a worthy contender in a male-dominanted field, passing each test thrown her way during medical school. She said she’ll never forget seeing a cadaver for the first time and observing an autopsy, while many of her peers fainted around her. Later, she became one of the first two medical interns to work at the new Eugene Talmadge Memorial Hospital. 

“I ended up getting great grades, but the first years, they were tough,” she said. 

After earning her M.D. in 1957, Dr. Carlton stayed at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta for two years of internal medicine training. As she rotated through various hospitals, she was sent to Wauchula, Florida, to cover for a doctor at a small private hospital. Her second night in town, she was introduced to Albert Carlton, a cattleman.

“We fell in love right away,” she said. “We had a courtship between Wauchula, Florida, and Augusta in ’58, and then we got engaged in early ’59 and got married in June 1959.”

Dr. Carlton settled in Wauchula with Albert and worked at the same small private hospital for a year. The couple, who would later have three sons and a daughter, built a house and a medical office for Dr. Carlton in the country, where she provided internal medicine care for nine years. When a new hospital opened in 1970, she joined the first staff and practiced there for seven years. 

In 1977, Dr. Carlton retired as a doctor to take over running the family ranching and citrus business, since Albert had to step away from those duties for his health. The couple bought a log cabin as their summer home and had it relocated from Old Fort, North Carolina, to Cashiers in 1978.

Albert, who had coronary heart disease, suffered heart attacks at age 42 and then a decade later and died in 1992. Dr. Carlton has remained active in the family business, along with her children. Disease wiped out the Carlton orange trees a decade ago, but the family continues its cattle work and recently entered the sod business, she said.

It was also in Wauchula that Dr. Carlton began what has become a lifelong passion. 

“Turkey hunting was big in Florida. I never had been. I was from Georgia. I learned to quail hunt early in my teens with my brother-in-law. I coon hunted with my dad growing up. So I was familiar with guns. When I got to Florida, all the men went turkey hunting. So I thought, ‘I need to find out what that’s about.’”

She went on her first hunt around age 30 with her husband and some of his friends. She’s now been a wild turkey hunter for more than 60 years and a member of the National Wild Turkey Federation since 1978. 

A woman and man wearing hats and outdoor clothing hold a large turkey. They stand next to a wooden fence in a grassy area.
Dr. Barbara Carlton and Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles at Lawton’s Gate on Hoss Creek, circa 1996. Photo from “This Was Nearly Mine: A Journey Through Carlton Country.”

During one especially memorable Mercer President’s Club meeting, she performed a turkey call to kick off the agenda. She even took Mercer President William D. Underwood hunting in 2015. They called the hunt off when a coyote showed up instead of a turkey and concluded their morning with a big breakfast, Dr. Carlton said.

“I killed my last turkey last year. I did not get one this year. It’s harder for me to get around. I do enjoy it. I have game cameras. I can direct the hunt after I see the cameras. I can tell my grandchildren and children where to go,” she said. 

Dr. Carlton has taught all of her children, grandchildren and of-age great-grandchildren how to turkey hunt. She has named a turkey blind — a shelter created by hunters in the woods to help them stay concealed from animals — after each of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She also names the prominent gobblers that she and her family pursue in their hunts. For instance, turkeys have been named Phantom of the Opera and Lady Gaga and after many notable politicians.

“I’ve tried to keep them connected to Mother Nature and the open spaces,” said Dr. Carlton, who has 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. 

She said turkey hunting hasn’t been easy, but it’s been fun. There are 10 rules to it, she said, and all of them are “don’t move.” She has claimed four three-bearded turkeys, which are rare, in the last 20 years. 

“For every turkey I’ve ever killed, I’ve spent over 50 hours just scoping them, trying to figure them out. It takes a lot of work, a lot of time. Being out there early, hearing the birds, seeing the bobcats, coyotes, alligators and coons and foxes all are a part of. It’s not just the turkeys, it’s the wildlife and Mother Nature.”

A book cover with a green background and a drawing showing a man and woman with their arms around each other while each riding a horse. The title displayed is "This Nearly Was Mine, A Journey Through Carlton Country"
The cover of Dr. Carlton’s book, “This Nearly Was Mine: A Journey Through Carlton Country.”

Dr. Carlton and her family have been dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey and other wildlife through land protection initiatives. 

“We have been able to place about 10,000 acres in the hands of protection,” she said. 

They sold 8,000 acres of land they owned along the Withlacoochee River to the state of Florida to be used as a wildlife management area and 2,000 acres along the Peace River for a conservation stewardship program. In addition, they established a conservation easement on 750 acres in Cashiers.

Dr. Carlton also donated the land where the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library was built and has continued to support library initiatives, as the library celebrates its 30th anniversary in July 2024.

She’s proud to have written a book about her life and her family’s origins. “This Nearly Was Mine: A Journey Through Carlton Country” was published by Great Outdoors Publishing in 2009.

 

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