Donald T. Atkinson, ophthalmologist and author, was born on May 31, 1874, in Little Shemogue, New Brunswick, one of five sons of Joseph Silliker and Elizabeth A. (Grant) Atkinson. In 1883 his family moved to the United States, and he was left behind to help care for his grandmother. In 1886 Atkinson left home to go to work in the coal mines of Nova Scotia. After being injured in the mines, he went to sea, but retired from the sailing life in Boston at the age of fourteen. Thereafter, he worked as a stable boy, coachman, and freighter and took night classes at Tufts College. In 1899 he graduated as a psychiatric nurse from McLean Hospital, part of the Harvard medical complex. Shortly after graduation he was hired to accompany a patient on a trip through the Dakotas, only to find himself stranded when the patient tried to commit suicide in a Pierre hotel. He resumed his education at Pierre University, later Huron College. The dean, impressed with his abilities, gave Atkinson a letter of reference to the Hospital College of Medicine in Louisville, Kentucky, where he obtained his M.D. degree in 1902.
He subsequently traveled west with two classmates to practice general medicine in the Oklahoma Territory and in Bonanza and Del Rio, Texas. After further study at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital, he opened a practice in Hillsboro, Texas, where he specialized in eye, ear, nose, and throat surgery. He took further training in Vienna and London, returned to Hillsboro for three years, and then moved to Dallas. He gradually limited his practice to ophthalmology. In 1911 he became ill with tuberculosis. After a stay in the Kerrville Sanatorium, he set up practice in San Antonio, where he stayed for the rest of his life. He became a United States citizen in 1916.
In San Antonio Atkinson was on the staff of both Santa Rosa and Nix hospitals. Except for a period in the 1920s when he became interested in the treatment of throat cancer, he concentrated upon diseases and surgery of the eye. He designed innovative instruments and operative methods in eye surgery. He received a fellowship in the National Surgical Society of Italy and a bronze medal from the University of Florence for his research in glaucoma. He was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree by Center College in Danville, Kentucky, in 1944 and an honorary doctor of law degree by Huron College in 1945.
Atkinson was ophthalmology editor for the Texas Medical News from 1913 to 1916 and associate editor of the Chicago Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat Journal for many years. He wrote and illustrated a textbook on the interior of the eye and was the author of eight other books, including Magic, Myth and Medicine (1955) and an autobiography, Texas Surgeon (1958), which won an award from a national professional journalism fraternity for women in 1958. He was a fellow of the International College of Surgeons in Geneva and of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Dublin and a member of the American Medical Association, the Texas Medical Association, the Bexar County Medical Society, the American College of Surgeons, the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology, the Southern Medical Association, the National Tuberculosis Association, the American Genetic Association, the American Social Hygiene Association, the National Society of Arts and Letters, the National Association of Authors and Journalists, and the San Antonio River Art Group.
In 1935 Atkinson married silent film star Wanda Wiley, who had returned to Texas with the advent of talking pictures. They had no children. He died on March 20, 1959, in San Antonio, of coronary occlusion.