Columbia University Medical Center

Opening Doors: Contemporary African-American Academic Surgeons

Dr. Kenneth A. Forde, MD, speaks at NLM exhibit.

Kenneth A. Forde speaks at NLM exhibit.

The Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library is currently hosting the exhibit “Opening Doors: Contemporary African-American Academic Surgeons.” Created by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) as part of its traveling exhibition program, “Opening Doors” highlights four prominent African-American surgeons and examines their roles as educators, healers, and pioneers.

The exhibit, which runs through April 26, may be seen during regular library hours: 8 a.m.–11 p.m., Monday–Thursday; 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Friday; 10 a .m.–11 p.m. Saturday; and noon–11 p.m. Sunday. For more information contact

Remarks on exhibit by Kenneth A. Forde, MD, March 18, 2014

At this time of year, usually in February, black history is featured in many activities and at many institutions in the United States and in Great Britain.

This particular exhibit is titled, “Opening Doors: Contemporary African-American Academic Surgeons” and is on loan from the National Library of Medicine. It is being shown in various parts of the country, not only to recognize and honor black academic surgeon pioneers but, more important, to inspire young women and men in the health professions to consider this pathway for their professional lives.

Pursuing an academic career in all fields of medicine, and for all students and trainees, is arduous. It requires discipline and sacrifice, sometimes detracting from other satisfactions. For the African-American surgical trainee and young surgeon there are, as you know, additional challenges.

This exhibit highlights but a few of those individuals who have gone before us and some who are still among us. There are many more whose existence is not widely known but who have indeed helped to open the doors of academic surgery.

Among the former P&S students and trainees at this medical center, we note Dr. Charles Drew, who earned his Doctor of Medical Science degree at Columbia; but also Dr. John C. Norman, who trained here, innovator in cardiovascular surgery and transplantation, prolific author on many issues (for example Medicine in the Ghetto). I should also include Dr. Arthur B. Lee, who obtained a Doctor of Medical Science Degree for his work in bioengineering at Columbia and became the first surgical chair at Morehouse; Dr. Harry Delany P&S’58, professor of surgery at Albert Einstein Medical College, whose contributions to splenic preservation after trauma and to surgical nutrition are well known; and Dr. Velma Scantlebury P&S’81, who, by the way, was one of my coauthors on an early paper on colon polyps and cancer and has become a leading figure in organ transplantation.

Perhaps I should tell you a little about my connection with some of the individuals mentioned in this exhibit.

It was in 1983 when three of us headed national organizations simultaneously. The late Dr. Claude Organ was head of the American Board of Surgery; Dr. LaSalle Leffall was head of the American of Cancer Society; and I was privileged to be a cofounder and president of the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES).

Mutual pride, energy, and inspiration flowed. Drs. Organ and Leffall both went on to become presidents of the American College of Surgeons (as has Dr. L. D. Britt of Eastern Virginia Medical School, who was recent Alpha Omega Alpha Visiting Professor at P&S).

But it is Dr. Charles Drew from whom I have drawn special inspiration. When I was a student at P&S in the 50s, I worked part time in the Presbyterian Hospital Blood Bank, as had several other African-American P&S students over the years (there were at most two of us in any class in those days). I later found out that the blood bank job went preferentially to us because of the legacy of Charlie Drew.

As some of you may know, Dr. Drew had difficulty obtaining a surgical residency at a prestigious American academic institution, despite stellar qualifications, because of his race.

On his second attempt at P&S, he was taken on (by Dr. Whipple of pancreatic surgery fame) as a fellow in pathology. Dr. Drew continued research he had initiated at McGill and developed methods of blood plasma preservation and storage, which led to the program Blood for Britain, which saved thousands of lives in World War II.

He took the energy that some of us might otherwise expend in being angered at discrimination or frustrated by rejection and turned it into avenues of excellence and activity that helped and inspired others.

So enjoy this exhibit. Those interested in more information will find the book by Dr. Claude Organ —A century of Black Surgeons in the United States—great reading.