Columbia University Medical Center

Black History Month: A Tribute to Kenneth A. Forde, MD

Ken and Kay Forde

Ken and Kay Forde

The Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs of the College of Physicians & Surgeons held its first Kenneth A. Forde Diversity Alliance reception in December 2014, with plans to host the reception annually.

The Kenneth A. Forde Diversity Alliance was established last year to recruit and retain a diverse community of medical students, graduate students, and house staff; highlight contributions of minority students, house staff, faculty, and research scientists; foster and strengthen cooperative and mentoring relationships among students, trainees, and faculty; provide career and leadership development; and support the pipeline programs of the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.

At the December reception, Shearwood J. McClelland, a 1974 P&S graduate, director of orthopedic surgery at Harlem Hospital Center and senior lecturer in orthopedic surgery at P&S, delivered remarks to introduce and congratulate Dr. Forde, the Jose M. Ferrer Professor Emeritus of Clinical Surgery at P&S and the 109th trustee of Columbia University. Below is a condensed version of Dr. McClelland’s remarks.

By Shearwood J. McClelland

A few years ago, when I was the P&S representative on the university’s Alumni Trustee Nominating Committee, it was my distinct honor to submit Dr. Forde’s name in nomination for Columbia University Trustee—and now, with those additional responsibilities, he seems to be working even harder in retirement than he had previously. Again, I offer him both my congratulations and my condolences!

As most of you here know, Dr. Forde is no stranger to BALSO, having been chosen “Teacher of the Year” three times by this very special group. The main focus of my remarks this evening will be to remind all of us of the tremendous individual we are honoring this evening. He is standing in the shadows over there so modestly composed—like the black Clark Kent that he is—but to those of us who know him—and I have known him for more than 40 years—he has been, in every respect, truly a super, Super Man. And the other point I want to make to all BALSO members here is the unique thing that Dr. Forde, you, and I all have or one day will have in common: a P&S education and a P&S diploma. It is my hope that in the future all of you will, in whatever ways you can, continue to support this very special medical school that admitted and trained you and give forward, so that future P&S minority students will be able to continue sharing the unique support and camaraderie of BALSO.

We do not live in a perfect world here at P&S, but I can tell you that the P&S you are experiencing today is one heck of a lot better than the one I came to in 1969—and certainly a lot better than what Ken Forde found when he matriculated in 1955. My class had only a handful of minority students, and there was no BALSO. The only relevant meaning that the initials of BALSO could possibly have had for us would have been: Being Alone Literally Sucks Outrageously! And the P&S that Ken Forde found waiting for him 15 years before that was admitting about a handful of minorities per decade.

Not only was the P&S of Kenneth Forde’s formative medical school years unlike that of today, the same was true of American society. When Dr. Forde matriculated here in 1955, there was no civil rights bill, no emphasis on either affirmative action or diversity. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was eight years away from delivering his “I Have A Dream” speech; during Dr. Forde’s chief resident year at the First Columbia Surgical Division at Bellevue, New York freedom riders Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were murdered by Klansmen in Mississippi.

Over the years—and largely due to both the obvious and subliminal impact of a handful of people led by the example of Dr. Ken Forde—Columbia P&S has evolved into a place of such excellence, opportunity, diversity, and camaraderie that even postgraduate trainees and faculty members who didn’t attend P&S wish, in retrospect, that they’d had your types of experiences in their medical schools—and some hold onto the wish that their children may one day have a chance to attend a school like P&S.

For those here who might be interested in psychiatry, I have a little story for you. There was a P&S alum who, in his first year in practice, was having difficulty interacting with some graduates of other medical schools; he finally went to one of our Freudian-trained psychiatrists to find out if he might have a personality disorder that needed to be addressed. After his first few minutes on the couch, the psychiatrist abruptly interrupted him and emphatically stated: “I don’t want to waste your time or take any more of your money because there is no medical cure for ails you—and it’s not your fault. Your medical associates are the problem, and it is obvious that they have, for better or for worse, a permanent and incurable case of…P&S” Envy!

One of the things that stands out most in my mind is Dr. Kenneth Forde’s personal loyalty and commitment to P&S. Since returning to his native New York from elementary and high school in Barbados, with an educational stopover at City College (where he was a cum laude graduate), essentially all of his medical training and practice, except for a two-year military stint in Europe, has been under the aegis of Columbia University, where he has been—and remains—a trailblazer and barrier breaker. And with respect to his professional accomplishments as a whole, he has given me permission to mention, with impunity, only a few of the most salient highlights:

  • Member of Alpha Omega Alpha
  • Founding member of the American Trauma Society
  • Editor of the international surgical journal, Surgical Endoscopy
  • First African-American president, NY Surgical Society
  • First African-American president, NY Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy
  • First African-American president, American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons
  • Co-author of two books, author of 18 chapters in other books, author of 133 articles
  • More than a dozen visiting professorships
  • One of “America’s Leading Minority Physicians” per Black Enterprise Magazine
  • Townsend Harris Medal from his college alma mater for outstanding postgraduate achievement
  • Pillar in his Episcopal church in Riverdale, where he is a member of the vestry, Eucharist minister, and member of the choir
  • Last but certainly not least, his nationally televised live colonoscopy of Katie Couric represents “15 minutes of fame” that live on and on, taking on a lifespan and sphere of influence that now approach 15 years

At Columbia University and P&S:

  • First African-American president of the John Jones Surgical Society
  • First African-American surgeon at Columbia for whom an endowed chair has been established
  • First Black member of the P&S Admissions Committee (serving for 18 years in that position)
  • First Black president of the P&S Alumni Association
  • First African-American from P&S to become a Columbia University Trustee
  • Arnold P. Gold Foundation Award for Humanism in Medicine
  • Physician of Year Award from the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Division of Nursing
  • Columbia P&S Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award
  • CPMC Society of Practitioners Practitioner of the Year Award
  • Gold Medal For Excellence in Clinical Medicine
  • Columbia Alumni Federation Medal for Conspicuous Service to the University
  • P&S Silver Medal for Meritorious Service to P&S and its Alumni Association
  • Reunion Co-Chair of his Class of 1959 (perennial)
  • P&S Representative on the Columbia University Senate
  • Member of the Board of Visitors of the Medical Center
  • Honors & Awards Committee Chair, P&S Alumni Association

And this is not an exhaustive list of his honors, awards, and accomplishments. I envy Ken Forde, because he, like our current president of the United States, has demonstrated time and time again an uncanny ability to transcend human pettiness and bias, focusing his efforts and energy instead on expanding horizons, creating community, and motivating others by example. Truly a class act. To whatever degree P&S is a better place now than in the past, we owe a tremendous debt to the loyalty, perseverance, even temperament (temperedness), and pursuit of excellence of Dr. Kenneth Forde, the ultimate example of what a minority P&S medical student could be and did become despite all the obstacles along the way.

But be fairly warned: The struggle of minorities for equal access and equal “appreciation” in the medical profession is not over, and, P&S degree or not, most of you in this room are quite likely to find yourselves, at one time or another, in the future position of a minority medical trailblazer. Practically every minority physician of my generation and others of a younger era have found themselves entering a patient-care arena appropriately trained, impeccably mannered, and professionally attired—but still find themselves either being misidentified as some nonphysician employee or facing a confrontation with someone not used to taking direction from a minority physician in charge. A classic example of this was noted by Dr. Ben Carson who, after introducing himself and discussing the details of the brain surgery he would be performing on a young child with epilepsy, asked the parents if they had any questions. After graciously thanking him for his detailed explanation, one of the parents then stated: “I have just one question: When is Dr. Ben Carson coming in to see us?”

In any field of endeavor, it takes a tremendous amount of character, faith, perseverance, and personality to weather the ongoing stresses of being a minority trailblazer. These are the people who somehow rise to the challenge of overcoming their own loneliness and doubts, who anticipate, sometimes in vain, the best behavior in others while also striving, in their most private of moments, to bring out the best in themselves. They are the ones who take the first arrows—sometimes in the back—and still get back up because of a dream, or a promise, or an undeniable faith. There is an old saying that if you find yourself, relatively speaking, in a place or position where you can sometimes “play it cool,” it is most likely because somebody else before you or around you has been playing it hot—and Dr. Ken Forde has been “playing it hot” here at P&S for well over half a century!

There have been 10 deans of the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in the 59 years since Ken Forde first matriculated. They had different backgrounds, agendas, priorities, and degrees of success. Our current Dean Goldman notwithstanding, all of the rest have come and gone; but the one unifying constant throughout has been the loyalty, sagacity, and clinical expertise of Dr. Kenneth Forde. And empowered by his more recent roles as emeritus professor and University Trustee, he is not only “still standing,” but standing taller than ever! And he must know a thing or two about married life as well, because, in an era when some people seem to be trading in spouses as often as they do their cars, he and his wife Kay have been a hot item here at the medical center for decades. And she is still smiling!

Thank you, Dr. Ken Forde, for being such a wonderful role model for Black and Latino students here at P&S and a role model for the non-Black and Latino students, all physicians, and all of our P&S family as well! You have provided all of us with a life of character, loyalty, and achievement to emulate and be proud of. And like an ageless “child” in perpetual awe of a timeless master, I will conclude this tribute by simply saying: “One day, when I grow up … I want to be just like you!”

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Read about the contributions of CUMC students, faculty, and graduates to efforts to increase the diversity of America’s health care workforce and eliminate health disparities.