The Other Dr. Gilmer

Alumnus writes story of a mountain murder and mental health

When Dr. Benjamin Gilmer ’06 reported to his new job as a rural physician in western North Carolina, he learned he had the same last name as the doctor he was replacing.

From there, the story shifted from coincidence to saga that he turned into a book about physician advocacy, incarceration and mental illness.

The Other Dr. Glimer

The Other Dr. Gilmer: Two Men, a Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice, published by Penguin Random House in March, chronicles a story that was featured on NPR’s This American Life in 2013 and is now being produced as a motion picture. The story began when Gilmer got a job near Asheville replacing Dr. Vince Gilmer — the two are not related — after the latter doctor went to prison for killing his father.

“I’m a family medicine doctor, and I wanted to share that one really important part of what we do as physicians, especially family medicine physicians, is to advocate,” Gilmer said. “That’s the biggest thing I want to leave for students: that it’s OK to jump into a journey you may never have known before.”

Gilmer, who is also an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and Mountain Area Health Education Center’s Family Medicine Residency program, realized he needed to write the book in 2017, after then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia denied a clemency petition for Vince Gilmer, who had been sentenced to life in prison.

Vince Gilmer practiced medicine at Cane Creek Family Health Center in Fletcher until June 2004. He was convicted of strangling his father with a rope; he then cut off his fingers and left the body on the side of a road in Virginia. Vince Gilmer returned to the clinic and practiced medicine for several days before he was arrested. He eventually confessed to the killing.

When Benjamin Gilmer joined the clinic, patients told him Vince Gilmer had been a great doctor and person. Filled with curiosity and questions, Benjamin Gilmer began visiting Vince Gilmer in prison and became convinced his predecessor suffered from serious mental health issues, including Huntington’s disease, an inherited disease that can cause bizarre or unusual behavior, that were not recognized by prison officials.

From there, Benjamin Gilmer’s passion for justice grew until he was compelled to find time to write the book. Gilmer would get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to write, go care for patients and then write more after work.

His advocacy might have made a difference. On Jan. 13, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam — who read a preview copy of The Other Dr. Gilmer — pardoned Vince Gilmer, now 59. Because of COVID restrictions and a lack of beds in a suitable psychiatric institution, he is still in prison but looks forward to his future.

“So much about studying medicine either beats the ideals out of you or consolidates them and makes them stronger,” Ben Gilmer said. “I want to use this book as a tool to help protect (students’) idealism and help strengthen their focus about the importance of pursuing advocacy work and social justice in medicine — to make sure it’s on their radar and to encourage them to be bold.”