From Georgia to the nation’s capital, The Honorable Dr. Louis Sullivan made a remarkable impact by advocating for humane and equitable care for all

The Founding Dean and President Emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Sullivan will be receiving the 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medal

Dr. Louis Sullivan was born during the Great Depression and grew up in rural Georgia, in a town called Blakely, where his father was a funeral director. The importance of access to medicine was imprinted very early on young Louis. When Black people were ill, Dr. Sullivan recalled in an interview recently, they had the unfortunate choices of trying to recover on their own, entering through the back door of the local white doctor’s office and waiting until he was done with all of his white patients, which was demeaning and not acceptable – or traveling more than 40 miles to the nearest Black physician, Dr. Joseph Griffin.

Dr. Griffin was famous in southwest Georgia. He was the only Black doctor in the region, based in the town of Bainbridge, where he had built up a 25-bed hospital. He was highly respected. To reach him, though, was not easy. When Louis was a child, his father owned a rare automobile, the funeral home’s hearse. And if a Black neighbor was very sick and could afford it, they would pay for ambulance services, essentially, and be transported in the Sullivan family hearse to Dr. Griffin. And sometimes young Louis would ride along.

“I decided around age 5 that I was going to be a doctor,” Dr. Sullivan said. “I was going to be like Dr. Griffin. I was going to have the abilities that he had to cure people from illness and injury. “

Dr. Louis W. Sullivan

What he didn’t know at age 5 was that his quest to help others heal would indeed take him to medical school, like Dr. Griffin – and then much farther: all the way to the nation’s capital. He would never return to small-town Blakely, Georgia, to practice. He attended Morehouse College for his undergraduate education, then Boston University for medical school, and on to residency at New York Hospital – Cornell Medical Center, a clinical fellowship in pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a research fellowship in hematology at the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory of Harvard Medical School, Boston City Hospital. He would become head of the hematology department at Boston City Hospital, and then return to his college alma mater to create the Morehouse School of Medicine as its Founding Dean and then President.

From there, he would get a call from President George H.W. Bush, who asked him to become the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, a role that would allow him to make an even bigger impact and help improve the health of all Americans.

Throughout this distinguished career, Dr. Sullivan’s calling has remained rooted in caring for people and working to ensure better health and better lives. Though he wouldn’t have used the term “humanism” as a young boy, humanism was embedded in his childhood, as he watched his parents care for others. The thread of compassion, collaboration, and scientific excellence is woven throughout his life and his distinguished career.

On June 20th, the Honorable Dr. Louis Sullivan will be awarded the Gold Foundation’s 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medal at its Annual Gala for his expansive and unique contributions to healthcare in America. He will be honored alongside three other clinician leaders: Dr. Gina S. Brown, Dean of Howard University’s College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences; Dr. Richard I. Levin, President and CEO of the Gold Foundation, who is retiring this summer after a remarkable 12-year tenure; and Dr. Eileen Sullivan-Marx, Dean of the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and Gold Trustee.


In Georgia, pushing for change

Growing up in rural Georgia, Louis saw first-hand both the deep care of his community and the terrible impact of racism.

His parents were leaders in the Blakely community. Among their many acts of community support, his father bought and distributed vegetables and meat. The family – Louis, his older brother, and his two parents – would fill up big paper bags and ride together to visit people in need. “And, of course, my father was trying to do this in a way that people found it acceptable and not shaming,” recalled Dr. Sullivan. “He would always just say, ‘Look, we bring you a little good cheer,’ and have a few words, and have it as kind of as a social event. This was a mechanism that my father used to help those in the community he knew were hurting and doing it in a way that they didn’t have to come and ask, or be embarrassed. It turns out this was also good for business because he built up a lot of goodwill in the community that way.”

His father’s business expanded and became quite successful. All the while, he actively pushed for much-needed change. The schools were segregated, and, at that time in Georgia, Black citizens could participate in the general election but not the primary, which was called the “white primary.”

“My father brought suit against the county and the state of Georgia to repeal the white primary,” explained Dr. Sullivan. “He also started the annual Emancipation Day celebration, which was on January 1 of every year. He would have a program, usually with a band coming down from Atlanta to march around town to celebrate Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to declare that slaves were free. And he did things like that to push against the system.

“And of course, this was resisted by the white power structure to the degree that they actually tried to kill my father. They hired a local man who shot my father. Fortunately, he was injured with a bullet that went through the base of his neck and damaged his brachial plexus, but he survived that. But he lost the ability to write with his right hand, had to learn to write with the other hand. So that was the kind of environment that we had.”

The white people in power in Blakely retaliated in various ways, Dr. Sullivan remembered. His mother, who was a school teacher, had to travel to other towns to work, as the Blakley schools would not hire her.

“Those were the kinds of things to which I was exposed, learning to push back against what we considered an evil system, an unfair system, as well as working to support our neighbors,” said Dr. Sullivan. “That’s how I think my early years conditioned me to think of how to interact with people in a humane and dignified way, to treat people with respect and to be concerned about their welfare as well as my own welfare.”


A new medical school is born

When Dr. Sullivan was applying to medical school, schools in the South did not admit Black students, except for the two historically Black medical schools: Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee (where Gold Trustee Dr. Kimberly Manning is a proud alumna and Gold Trustee Dr. Wayne Riley has served as President) and Howard University in Washington, D.C. (There were originally more Black medical schools, but after the Flexner Report came out in 1910, many of them were closed.)

Dr. Louis Sullivan at his medical school graduation in 1958 with his mother, left, and father, and a family friend. (Source: Breaking Ground memoir. Used with permission.)

In fact, Georgia, Dr. Sullivan’s home state, paid the difference between the cost of tuition at the state medical school and his out-of-state medical education rather than allow him to enroll locally – an ironic twist, because Boston University, where he ended up studying, was his preferred choice.

At both Boston University College of Medicine and later as practicing physician, Dr. Sullivan often found himself the only Black physician around. Despite Black Americans making up 10-11% of the population then – and 28% of Georgia’s population – they were only 2% of physicians in America. Today, Black Americans make up 13% of the population and 5% of physicians, still disproportionately low.

Because of the shortage of Black physicians, Morehouse College decided they might develop a new medical school, the first new Black medical school in the 20th century. This would be an enormous task, and Dr. Sullivan was recruited to be part of the committee of alumni to look into the idea.

“Well, I and some of the other alumni were skeptical initially. We felt that this college trying to start a medical school was pretty ambitious,” said Dr. Sullivan. But still, the group met for a year, and by the end of it, they were convinced. It was a big leap, but it was needed.

Next, Morehouse asked the group to think of people who could lead this effort. Dr. Sullivan sent along 11 names. A week or so later, the Morehouse professor running the search, Joseph Gayles, called to thank Dr. Sullivan.

Dr. Louis Sullivan cares for a patient at the Boston City Hospital sickle cell clinic in 1971. (Source: Breaking Ground memoir. Used with permission.)

“He said he thought it was an impressive list, but they were disappointed that I sent an incomplete list.” At first, Dr. Sullivan wasn’t sure what they meant – but then he realized: “I said, ‘Oh no, if you’re talking about me, I’m not interested. I’m here in Boston. I am managing the Hematology program at the Boston City Hospital. I have a research grant from NIH, a training grant for hematology fellows. And I’m very pleased with what I’m doing. I’m not interested in heading up a medical school. That’s all administrative work, raising funds, dealing with political issues, dealing with faculty and student issues.”

Joe replied: “Well, we thought that might be the answer you would give us, but the Board of Trustees is meeting in New York about three weeks from now. And I was asked to tell you that if you were willing, a committee of the board would love to meet with you to get your ideas about this school, what you think the pluses and minuses are, and promises as well as the challenges.”

Dr. Sullivan agreed to talk with the Board, but only as an informal, unpaid consultant. He went down to New York, and a two-hour meeting ended up being a four-hour discussion. “During that time, I’d been asked a lot of questions,” he recalled. “Since I was not a candidate, I was very straightforward, very blunt in my responses. But I think I talked myself into the job, because I was then offered the position, went down, looked at it further and then accepted. So that’s how that happened.”

Dr. Sullivan and his family moved from New England down to Atlanta, and he began the challenging work of starting a medical school from scratch. This involved fundraising, recruiting faculty, managing internal and external politics, a whole world away from research and patients.

It also involved developing the medical school curriculum. “We had, as part of our curriculum, the course Human Values in Medicine, which at that time was relatively new with medical schools,” said Dr. Sullivan. “We recruited an individual who had been Professor of English in the college who had an interest in humanism and philosophy. She developed the program in consultation with others.” Beginning with the first class, in 1978, humanism was embedded in the curriculum. “The idea being that within medicine, having a humane approach was very important. Treating people with dignity and respect and helping to develop effective communication and trust, all of that was important in delivering health services. And of course, I think that has developed far along since that time, back in 1978.”

By 1988, the Morehouse School of Medicine was thriving. Dr. Sullivan had built up a strong student body, staff, and Board of Trustees, which included First Lady Barbara Bush, who had proved to be a wonderful fundraiser for the school.

And that’s when President George H.W. Bush called to offer him a position in his cabinet.


Caring for America’s entire population

As Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Sullivan had big plans to help with the health of the nation’s people. The potential of the job appealed to him enormously. Here was an opportunity to make an even bigger difference.

President George H.W. Bush’s first cabinet meeting, January 20, 1989, with Dr. Louis Sullivan, then Secretary of Health and Human Services. (Source: Breaking Ground memoir. Used with permission.)

“I was concerned to maximize the well-being of everyone, but particularly the people on the bottom,” Dr. Sullivan wrote in his memoir Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine. “I wanted the millionaire to do well, but the millionaire had access to resources that weren’t available to others. I was far more concerned about the poor. That was the direction I was going to go in; that was the tenor of my agenda.”

It was 1989, the height of the AIDS epidemic. “This was a true national health emergency, like nothing we had ever faced before. It needed to be addressed by an all-out assault by medical science on one hand and public education on the other.” Dr. Sullivan pushed to triple the funding allotted to AIDS research, screening, treatment, prevention, and education.

He also took on the tobacco industry and pushed anti-smoking messages. “No single thing is more harmful to the nation’s health; nothing comes close,” he wrote in his memoir. “When my tenure began, 450,000 people a year died of smoking-related causes, in dreadful ways.”

One of the most visible changes Dr. Sullivan enacted was changing the food labels to show the contents of particular nutrients, fat, and fiber as a percentage of its daily requirement, rather than just the amount with no context. That took a fight with the Department of Agriculture, whose cattle and dairy industry constituencies were worried about profit loss. But in the end, President Bush sided with Dr. Sullivan, and the nation’s food labels reflect those changes today.

Another major accomplishment was the Healthy People 2000 report, which detailed national health goals, where the HHS Department wanted the nation’s health to be in a decade’s time.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Louis Sullivan plays horseshoes during Health and Fitness Day on the South Lawn of the White House in April 1990 with President George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush, and Chairman of the President’s Council on Sports and Fitness Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Source: Breaking Ground memoir. Used with permission.)

A more challenging arena was healthcare reform. Dr. Sullivan knew that 37 million Americans had no health insurance, and this was a giant area that needed change. He developed a reform plan and urged President Bush to tackle the issue. It was put aside for a long while, until a surprise Senate race revealed that voters did care about health care – a lot! President Bush took Dr. Sullivan’s healthcare reform plan off the shelf and gave it a high priority, submitting it to Congress. But both houses were Democratic, and it never made it to the congressional agenda.

“… It was a shame,” Dr. Sullivan recalled in his memoir. “Our plan to get everyone covered, plus our assault on the underlying drivers of health care costs, was a program that should have received bipartisan support.”

In other areas, when the decision wasn’t left to Congress, reform came more easily. Dr. Sullivan made a point of bringing women and minority professionals into leadership roles in the department. He established the Office of Research of Women’s Health at NIH and the Office of Research on Minority Health (now the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities). He also set up the Minority Male Initiative to examine problems of young Black men. These are lasting influences of his tenure.


“We’ll Fight It Out Here”

After President Bush lost his re-election campaign, Morehouse College of Medicine asked Dr. Sullivan to return as President, and he happily did, guiding it for many years to come. Dr. Sullivan retired from Morehouse in 2002 after serving more than two decades in total.

Following his tenure at Morehouse, he chaired the Sullivan Commission, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which studied the state of diversity in medicine and other health professions.

Their landmark report, Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions, listed 37 recommendations to address the disparity in the health professions, ranging in topics from improving early science education to the addressing burden of medical school debt.

The Sullivan Commission was followed by an ongoing body, the Sullivan Alliance to Transform the Health Professions, also funded by Kellogg. The core of its work was to provide research experiences for minority students during their college summers to expose them to the range of health professions. Hundreds of students have gone through the alliance program, and many have gone on to be doctors, nurses, or dentists. The Sullivan Alliance became part of the Alliance of Academic Health Centers (AAHC), which is now a program of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), a strong partner of the Gold Foundation.

Dr. Sullivan serves on two corporate boards, United Therapeutics and Emergent Biosolutions, and is retired from several boards, including Grady Hospital Corporation Board of Trustees in Atlanta, General Motors, 3M, Bristol Myers Squibb, Cigna, and Henry Schein, Inc., which is a Gold Corporate Council member. He is currently Co-Chairman of the Henry Schein Cares Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Henry Schein, Inc.

He has a professorship named for him at the Boston University School of Medicine, which also created the Louis W. Sullivan, M.D., Academic Leadership Program for high-potential faculty from underrepresented groups in medicine. And Weill Cornell Medicine has formed the annual Dr. Louis Wade Sullivan Department of Medicine Lecture in support of diversity and health equity. He is the recipient of more than 70 honorary degrees.

And Dr. Sullivan has written several books. His most recent, with David Chanoff, is We’ll Fight It Out Here: A History of the Ongoing Struggle for Health Equity, which won a Phillis Wheatley Award for 2023. The book chronicles the history of Black healthcare in America, from pre-Emancipation to today, and spotlights the work of the Association of Minority Health Professions Schools (AMHPS) in fighting for health equity. Dr. Sullivan was the Founding President of AMHPS.

We’ll Fight It Out Here will be given to attendees of the Gold Foundation’s Annual Gala on June 20, when Dr. Sullivan will receive the Gold Foundation’s National Humanism in Medicine Medal.

“I think having an organization like the Gold Foundation contributes a lot,” Dr. Sullivan reflected in a recent interview. “First of all, the White Coat Ceremony has become a very treasured ritual, where students not only entering medical schools but other health profession schools now see this as a symbol of entering the health professions as a healing art.”

He added: “It’s important to have a humane approach and recognize that you’re treating a patient, not simply accumulating data. I emphasize, for example, to students and to residents that they should spend as much time looking directly at the patient as they look at their computer screen. Nothing is more disturbing to have a physician come in the room to see me, and that physician is looking more at the computer screen than looking at me.

“The humane aspect of healthcare is very important,” Dr. Sullivan said. “It is not simply an appendix. It’s an important part of the interaction, and it enriches, enhances, and improves the outcome when you have a humane approach.”

Learn about the other three 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medalists: Dr. Richard I. Levin, Dr. Gina Spivey-Brown, and Dr. Eileen Sullivan-Marx. All were celebrated at the 2023 Annual Gala in New York City. 

Brianne Alcala

Brianne Alcala is the Editor in Chief and Chief Communications Officer for the Gold Foundation.