Hearts and Sciences

"Children should know their grandparents" is the motto...

"Children should know their grandparents" is the motto of the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC), founded in 1974 by Richard Allen Williams '57, M.D. He wanted to focus attention on what he calls the "death gap": the fact that blacks in this country have a shorter life expectancy than whites by about seven years. Cardiovascular disease plays a significant role in this discrepancy. "Hypertension strikes African Americans at a disproportionately higher rate," Williams notes, "resulting in more strokes, heart disease, and kidney failure. Professional groups such as the American Heart Association weren't addressing the problem."

Now a professor at UCLA Medical School, Williams has spent his career focused on the particular healthcare needs of minority populations. "It has always meant a great deal to me," he says, ""that I was named after Richard Allen [1760-1831], the ex-slave who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church so African Americans could worship as they wished. After I received my medical degree""--from SUNY Downstate Medical Center--"I felt I should try to do more than hang out a shingle and practice in one neighborhood. The model of Richard Allen has provided both a motivation and an obligation to make a difference in the wider community."

As a young doctor, Williams identified three goals: gathering data on the specific healthcare needs of African Americans; creating programs to reduce disparities in healthcare; and increasing the number of black physicians in this country. During a cardiology fellowship in Boston in the late 1960s, he helped set up the Central Recruitment Council, which sought out black and other minority prospects for Massachusetts medical schools and teaching hospitals. At that time, recalls Daniel Federman '49, M.D. '53, now senior dean for clinical teaching at Harvard Medical School, "there was exactly one minority member on the house staffs of all the teaching hospitals in the state. Dick Williams played a major role in changing that picture."

In 1975 Williams edited the ground-breaking Textbook of Black-related Diseases. Twelve years later he founded the Minority Health Institute to promote awareness of the need for culturally sensitive medical care. Noting that African Americans show different responses than whites to specific drug therapies, for example, Williams stresses that physicians need to view the patient "as a whole," including ethnicity, to prescribe the most effective treatment. The institute's Humane Medicine Program is developing a treatment model for hypertension patients that takes such drug-therapy differences into account; the model will eventually be accessible on the Internet. The institute also sponsors regular symposia to bring together medical leaders, including medical school deans, to address other pressing problems of healthcare delivery and medical education.

Instead of looking back over his career, Williams looks forward. "I will continue to be an agent for change," he says, "which will require repeated infusions of new energy and ideas!" Running long-distance races, playing jazz on the trumpet, and conversing with colleagues help him "reinvent myself to deal with a constantly changing healthcare scene. I want to encourage the creation of chairs in humane medicine at Harvard and elsewhere, so we can assure the minorities of this country that the low standard of medical treatment they receive is not America's final answer."

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