Health Care Hall of Fame
Dr. Louis Sullivan
Dr. Louis Sullivan can remember wanting to be a doctor since he was a young child. As an African-American growing up in rural Georgia in the 1930s, he might have seemed an unlikely candidate for the competition inherent in attending medical school.
“We lived in a rural community where education for blacks in those years was really very marginal,” Sullivan said.
But his parents appreciated the value of a good education and were willing to go to great lengths to get one for Louis and his older brother, Walter. His mother, a teacher, and his father, a funeral home operator and ambulance service owner, arranged at different times for the brothers to live with relatives or friends in towns where schools offered blacks a better opportunity to learn. So, for part of his grade school years he stayed with a relative in Savannah, Ga., and attended junior and senior high school in Atlanta while living with family friends.
That decision was just one of many that Sullivan’s parents made that cumulatively got him on track to become, first and foremost, a doctor, but also an activist for racial equity, an educator of physicians and HHS secretary. Now Sullivan can add the Modern Healthcare Health Care Hall of Fame to his stack of awards and honors.
Rick Pollack, CEO of the American Hospital Association, said that Sullivan’s naming to the hall is a well-deserved honor. “The contributions he’s made to the health and wellness of the country are significant,” Pollack said in an emailed statement. Pollack cited some of the numerous issues and causes Sullivan has taken on over the years, which include bringing “much-needed attention” to health disparities, improving disease prevention, and increasing awareness of the dangers of tobacco use. He’s also worked hard to increase diversity and equity in healthcare, Pollack said.
The Sullivan File
2008: Winner of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Award for Humanitarian Contributions to the Health of Humankind
2005-present: Chairman and founder, Sullivan Alliance to Transform the Health Professions
2003-04: Chairman, Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce
2002-09: Chairman, President’s Commission on Historically Black Colleges and Universities
2001-06: Co-chair, President’s Commission on HIV and AIDS
1989-93: HHS secretary
1985: Co-founder, Medical Education for South African Blacks
1975-89, 1993-2002: Dean, Morehouse School of Medicine
Sullivan said besides his parents, other role models influenced him on his career path. Benjamin Mays, a minister and activist who was Morehouse College president when Sullivan was an undergraduate, was a major factor in his development. Mays inspired him, as well as a number of other students at Morehouse, to work hard to be the best in whatever field they chose and to really be prepared when opportunities came.
Another influence came as a result of his father’s relationship with who was believed to be the only African-American doctor in their part of the state, Dr. Joseph Griffin. Sullivan's father, being an ambulance driver, would often drive the 40 miles with patients for care from the doctor, and Louis would ride along.
“Dr. Griffin was so admired by the community, and he seemed so important and so mysterious and so powerful that I told my parents when I was 5, I wanted to be like Dr. Griffin,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan’s positions as dean of Morehouse School of Medicine and HHS secretary are closely related, as one would not have happened without the other. Prior to returning to Morehouse to become dean, Sullivan worked as chief of hematology and as a professor at Boston University after attending medical school there.
But in the early 1970s, Morehouse came calling, seeking his help with forming a medical school and eventually offering him the dean position there. It happened that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush spoke at the dedication of the medical school’s first building and a friendship was born between Sullivan and both Bush and his wife, Barbara, who eventually sat on the Morehouse medical school board.
Later, when a friend asked Sullivan to speak to Bush about possibly nominating the friend to be HHS secretary, Bush, who was then president of the United States, said he’d rather have Sullivan himself, so he took on the challenge.
Among his accomplishments at HHS were leading an effort to substantially increase federal health research, creating what is now known as the National Institute on Minority Health and Disparities and inaugurating the Women’s Health Research program within the National Institutes of Health.
His work as HHS secretary was on a global stage, and he valued that experience greatly, he said, but from a personal perspective his work creating the Morehouse School of Medicine was the most rewarding. “I got great satisfaction out of that,” given what the school and its graduates have done in the more than 40 years since its founding, Sullivan said.
One of those graduates, Dr. Wayne Riley, president of the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, could not find enough ways to praise Sullivan. Riley first met him when he was senior class president and Sullivan was returning as dean after his stint with HHS.
“From the moment that I met with him I was just taken aback by what a wonderfully warm, engaging, erudite, personable and committed person he was,” Riley said. “I’m not the only one he has guided; there were many of us.”
Sullivan has remained committed to multiple causes since retiring as dean of Morehouse School of Medicine in 2002, having served on numerous boards and committees devoted to equitable healthcare and diversity in the workforce, including one named after him, the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce. He currently serves as chairman of an organization he founded, the Sullivan Alliance to Transform the Health Professions.
“I have been very pleased to have had the opportunity to develop my talents and to enter the healthcare field,” Sullivan said. “It’s really an important profession serving other people, making a real difference in their lives helping to cure or treat diseases.”