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My Life in Medicine,’ by Dr. Louis W. Sullivan

Young, Robert C. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000457042.89498.11
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One of the challenges of any autobiography is to make the story compelling while revealing important insights made possible by the author's unique perspective. This is particularly important when the author has not been central to some epic or world-changing event that serves as a centerpiece for the entire memoir. By this yardstick, Breaking Ground by Dr. Louis W. Sullivan is only partially successful.


Dr. Sullivan, an accomplished physician, hematologist, founding Dean of Morehouse School of Medicine, and Secretary of Health and Human Services under the first President Bush, is at his most engrossing when he shares the experience of his early life growing up in rural Blakeley, Georgia in the 1930s.

His small town was completely segregated. No black person held political office. Schools, churches, and medical facilities were completely segregated, and as Sullivan says “even death was segregated.” His father was an undertaker, the son of a slave who changed his name to Sullivan, which he took from the first mailbox he saw after he left his owner.

Dr. Sullivan's father was a dignified and respected man in the community, who always wore a suit and tie. But he was also an activist who started his town's NAACP chapter, started voter registration drives, and sponsored yearly Emancipation Parades in the town. Sullivan's mother held a Master's Degree in Education.

The family was hard working, cohesive, supportive, and committed to quality education. They sent the two brothers to Atlanta to attend Booker T. Washington High School, where they were exposed to the work of early black leaders such as Martin Luther King Sr. and W.E.B. DuBois. With a lifelong dream of being a doctor, Sullivan went to Morehouse College, excelled academically, and graduated salutatorian.

In 1954 he was accepted into Boston University School of Medicine and began, in his words, “my first entry into the white universe.” His life had been so segregated that he had little understanding of what to expect. He was the only black student out of a class of 76. But he found acceptance and shared all of the usual challenges of medical school with his colleagues.

Early on he drifted into lab work and developed an interest in physiology and hematology research. As he moved from an internship at Cornell to a residency at Massachusetts General, and then a fellowship in Hematology at the Thorndike Laboratory at Boston City Hospital, he was sheltered by academia and supported by key leaders at almost every level.

But this was not always the case. After accepting a position at a Duke affiliate hospital, his appointment was vetoed by the Chancellor of Duke.

More difficult was the real world of Boston and New England. In 1960, looking for housing with his new wife, he would be offered apartments, only to have them “be rented” when they showed up as a black couple. One summer, to take a break from the city and make some extra cash, they took a position as camp physician in Maine. When they arrived, the owners said “Doctor, I'm afraid there has been a terrible mistake. I'm not prejudiced, but we can't tell how our campers and their parents would react and our life savings are invested in this camp. We're sorry for the inconvenience this is causing.... We'll pay you the $2,000, but we think it would be best if we not engage you.” Dr. Sullivan stood his ground, said they had a signed contract, and after much discussion, they stayed. They had a successful summer and subsequently became good friends with the owners.

While these stories always seem unimaginable, in my experience they are unfortunately commonplace to most black and other minority doctors.

Another illuminating portion of the book delves into his role as the Founding Dean of Morehouse School of Medicine, the first black medical school created in a century. While Sullivan's research career had been very successful, he was troubled by the dearth of black doctors in the country. In 1968, outside of Howard and Meharry, there were only 113 black medical students in all the country's other medical schools. He and others saw the need for another predominately black medical school.

He describes the formative years in 1974, with no facilities, in dire need of money, surrounded by skeptics, no faculty, and the constraining politics from both black and white communities. That said, in 1978 they admitted the first class of 24 students—14 men and 10 women made up of 14 blacks, six whites, and four Asians.

Serendipity played a role in Sullivan's entrance into politics. Morehouse asked President Reagan to give the keynote address at the school's dedication, but he had a conflict and Vice President Bush accepted. This led to a friendship with the Bushes, and Barbara Bush joined the Morehouse Board and became a major fundraiser for the school.

The sections on Sullivan's introduction to national politics and his career as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services are less enlightening. He comments on his challenges with the press, the AIDS crisis, the abortion issue, and the tactics of the advocates for disabilities. But much of this is covered in a cursory manner. He describes his championing of women and minority issues, but provides little information other than noting the offices created, such as the Office of Research on Minority Health and the Office on Research on Women's Health.

He devotes several pages to what he calls “his one terrible mistake in African American affairs which had nothing to do with health.” He was one of those whom President Bush asked to vet Clarence Thomas as a candidate for the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, though, other than saying that he and others were duped, he doesn't explain how this happened.

This is a worthwhile book primarily for its description of the persistence of racial discrimination directed at even the most accomplished and productive of our minorities. The portrayal of the perils of national politics and the interworking of the Department of Health and Human Services are less detailed and less powerful.

Perhaps this is why Dr. Sullivan sums up with the statement: “Whatever I may have wished, my life has been inextricably tied to questions of race. As an African-American man in a majority white society, especially growing up when I did and where I did, how could it have been different? The racial and minority problems I have lived through and witnessed are imbedded in the history of our nation.”

To his great credit, though, he conveys neither anger nor bitterness about his experiences, nor does he express pessimism about the future of race relations in America.


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