AMA apology stuns Meharry CEO

Dr. Riley
Wayne J. Riley, Meharry Medical College president, applauds the AMA.

By Claudia Pinto

The Tennessean Newspaper
Nashville, TN

July 11, 2008



Dr. Wayne J. Riley, president and chief executive officer of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, remembers when discrimination by the American Medical Association arrested promising medical careers.

He said African-American physicians in the 1940s, '50s and '60s were routinely denied medical staff privileges at hospitals because they weren't AMA members. But they couldn't become AMA members because they were African-American.

So when the organization issued a formal apology Thursday for more than a century of policies that excluded African-Americans from a group long considered the voice of American doctors, Riley was "stunned and delighted."

"This has been a pox on the AMA house for more than a generation, and I applaud the leadership of the AMA for taking this affirmative step to right a grievous wrong," said Riley, who is an AMA member.

"The significance of this apology is that it recognizes the psychic pain of physicians who were discriminated against by AMA chapters and affiliates, because it really did hamper their ability to fully practice medicine and enjoy the benefits that their white colleagues were accustomed to," he said.

In 1955, the first three African-Americans to join Nashville's AMA affiliate organization were E. Perry Crump, Axel Hansen and Matthew Walker, all faculty members at Meharry, a spokeswoman at the college said.

It wasn't until the 1960s that AMA delegates took a strong stance against policies dating to the 1800s that barred African-Americans from some state and local medical societies.

Until then, AMA delegates had resisted pleas to speak out forcefully against discrimination or to condemn the smaller medical groups, which historically have had a big role in shaping AMA policy.

While the AMA itself didn't have a formal policy barring African-American doctors, physicians were required to be members of the local groups to participate in the AMA, said Dr. Ronald Davis, the group's immediate past president.

In a statement on its Web site, the AMA apologized "for its past history of racial inequality toward African-American physicians, and shares its current efforts to increase the ranks of minority physicians and their participation in the AMA."

Transplant surgeon Clive Callender, now 71 and a respected leader at Howard University Hospital in Washington, has hurtful memories of being the only African-American doctor at medical meetings in the 1970s, met with stark silence when he pleaded for better access to transplant organs for African-Americans.

"My attitude is not one of bitterness, but one of gratefulness that finally they have seen the error of their ways," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Claudia Pinto at 259-8277 or cpinto@tennessean.com.

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