‘Find a problem and solve it’

David Satcher delivers 2020 Howard, Dorsey, Still keynote address

Dr. David Satcher. Image: John Bazemore AP
Image: John Bazemore/AP

“If you want to be great, find a problem and solve it,” said David Satcher to a group of the next generation of health care leaders and policy makers.

“In order to eliminate disparities in health and achieve health equity,” Satcher said, quoting the credo advanced by the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine, “we need leaders who first care enough, leaders who know enough, leaders who have the courage to do enough, and leaders who will persevere until the job is done.”

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That was Satcher’s message on Nov. 20 as keynote speaker at this year’s virtual Howard, Dorsey, Still lecture, which honors the legacy of the first three African American men to graduate from Harvard Medical School.

Satcher is founding director and senior advisor of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute. In his talk, “Revisiting the Highs and Lows of Public Health Practice,” he shared insights from his more than 50 years of experience as a physician-scientist and as the 16th surgeon general of the United States and recounted public health milestones from the lows of the Tuskegee Study to the highs of eradicating polio in the U.S and the race to mobilize public support for COVID-19 vaccines that were developed so rapidly this year.

Throughout his career, Satcher has confronted many of the major problems threatening human health and wellness, including sexual health, polio, obesity, smoking, Alzheimer’s disease, HIV/AIDS, and oral and mental health.

The Satcher Health Leadership Institute, established in 2006, continues to address the core issues that Satcher focused on while he was surgeon general. With a focus on cultivating diverse leaders who will shape U.S. policy and working to reduce health disparities, the Satcher institute also sheds light on neglected diseases and underserved communities.

Reaffirming our commitment

According to the event’s co-hosts, Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership Joan Reede and Dean George Q. Daley, the Howard, Dorsey, Still lecture celebrates the School’s equity pioneers and reaffirms HMS’s commitment to excellence in the areas of diversity inclusion and valuing all members of the community.

“At HMS, diversity inclusion remains one of our most important goals,” said Daley in a pre-recorded message. “Thanks to the dedication and hard work of our faculty, staff, students and trainees, we have made significant strides, and we will continue to make progress. [This work] is a prerequisite for world leadership and it is essential for transforming culture.”

Celebrating the trailblazers

The Howard, Dorsey, Still lecture was named for the first three African Americans to graduate from HMS: Edwin C. J. T. Howard and Thomas Graham Dorsey, both from the Class of 1869, and James Still, who graduated with honors in 1871.

After graduation in 1869, Howard practiced medicine in Charlestown, South Carolina, for a year and then moved to Philadelphia, where he was instrumental in establishing the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital in 1895, the only hospital created specifically for African Americans at the time in Philadelphia. He then went on to co-found Mercy Hospital in 1905, also in Philadelphia.

Dorsey was the first student of African descent to receive the MD degree from Harvard Medical School in 1869, yet information about Dorsey’s life after graduation is limited.

Although few records can be found for Dorsey, he graduated HMS a year after Reconstruction began and apparently settled in Washington, D.C., where he would have witnessed the beginnings of Howard University’s College of Medicine, founded in 1868, as well as the transition of the Freedmen’s Hospital, founded in 1862, into Howard University Hospital. He would have also seen the creation of the first medical association for black physicians in Washington, known as the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Washington, D.C.

Still, who graduated with honors from Harvard Medical School in 1871, remained in Boston after graduation, practicing medicine. He was the first and only African American elected to the Boston School Board up until that time, and through his efforts, an opening was first made for African American teachers in Boston schools. In addition to Still being a spokesman for civil rights, he was also the nephew of William Still, the widely-recognized father of the Underground Railroad.

Through their perseverance, Howard, Dorsey and Still paved the way for other physicians of color in America, and the annual HMS lecture honors their achievements.

Since 2008, other public health luminaries, such as Neil Powe, Talmadge E. King, Jr., Hannah Valantine and Deborah Prothrow-Stith, have participated in the Howard, Dorsey, Still lecture, sharing their aspirations and perspectives as national leaders dedicated to equity, eliminating health disparities, and enhancing the efficacy of care delivery.

Satcher’s talk at the Howard, Dorsey, Still lecture, said Reede, “was meant not only to honor these three individuals but also to recognize others who have made significant contributions to advancing the nation’s health.”

To learn more, visit the HMS Archives for Diversity and Inclusion and The Center for the History of Medicine in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.