On October 28, 2019, a celebration was held to mark 50 years of diversity and inclusion at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. 1968-1969 marks an enormous shift in the School’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, a tradition that began when two Black students, Edwin C.J.T. Howard and Thomas Dorsey, graduated from HMS in 1869. Prior to 1968, there was no formal plan to recruit minority students, and only 64 African American students had graduated from HMS and HSDM prior to the Class of 1973.

Influenced by the civil rights movement, and spurred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, a group of HMS faculty, including Harold Amos, Jonathan Beckwith, Robert Buxbaum, Leon Eisenberg, Edwin Furshpan, Warren Gold, Luigi Gorini, Edward Kravitz, David Potter and Torsten Wiesel, engaged directly with Dean Robert Ebert about the role HMS should play in the context of the civil rights movement.

This group then drafted “A Program to Establish Scholarships at Harvard Medical School for the Support of Fifteen Negro Medical Students per Year.” Dean Ebert advised the group to garner the support of each department chair ahead of the April 1968 faculty meeting. Their efforts were also supported by a petition signed by more than half of the students at HMS.

The story of the faculty meeting is well-known. Elkan Blout and Jonathan Beckwith proposed on behalf of the petitioners that the School should increase minority enrollment by at least 15 students; the proposal was met with both strong support and opposition. Many faculty supported increasing minority enrollment, but there was debate over how many minority students to accept, where to find those students and how to support them both financially and emotionally.

Dean Ebert ended the debate by appointing an ad hoc committee for disadvantaged students, chaired by David Potter, to create guidelines for a resolution. The School committed to recruit, prepare and retain minority students, with a parallel effort focused on the relationship between HMS and the Black community, especially in the neighborhoods surrounding the School. Quotas were explicitly eschewed, and faculty members pledged over $50,000 to fund scholarships as part of a fund for disadvantaged students. In support of this affirmative action plan, Dean Ebert increased the incoming class size by 15 students. Sixteen minority applicants were accepted in the Class of 1973.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist known for his work as the Southern Field Director of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Jackson, Mississippi, and in community medicine at Tufts University, joined the faculty in 1969 to support the incoming students and foster diversity and inclusion at HMS. He was the first director of the HMS Office of Recruitment and Multicultural Affairs, which focused on increasing representation of Black, Puerto Rican, Mexican American and Native American students and continues to support all underrepresented students today.

Since 1969, HMS has graduated over 1,350 physicians from minority backgrounds. The expansion of programs to recruit, retain and support minority students and faculty, headed by monumental leaders like Alvin Poussaint, William Silen, Harold Amos, Joseph L. Henry, Nancy Oriol, Joan Reede, and many others, has not only changed HMS and HSDM, but medicine in America.

Historical Documents from the 1968 Diversity Initiative

Student petition

Faculty petition and proposal

Affirmative action press release

Documents provided courtesy of the Center for the History of Medicine at the Countway Library.