African American man (Leonidas Berry) seated at desk and looking at viewer.

Leonidas H. Berry and the Fight to Desegregate Medicine

The National Library of Medicine announces new public access to more than 1,600 materials selected and digitized from the Leonidas H. Berry Papers, 1907–1982 manuscript collection including letters, photographs, and ephemera documenting the career and personal life of the trailblazing physician and civil rights advocate. His work is recognized in the NLM traveling banner exhibition For All the People: A Century in Citizen Action in Health Care Reform; the online adaptation of the exhibition features 1,686 digitized items in a digital gallery. Stay tuned this week as Circulating Now features materials from the collection in honor of what would be Dr. Berry’s 116th birthday—July 16, 2018.

By Abigail Porter ~

When Leonidas H. Berry (1902–1995) graduated from Rush Medical College in 1929, racial segregation was a harsh and codified reality in America.  Along with racially segregated schools, restaurants, and buses, medicine was subject to an enforced racial order and characterized by a vast inequality. Medical practices and clinics were segregated by race, few medical schools admitted black students, and many hospitals would not hire black doctors or admit black patients.

Many of Dr. Berry’s papers housed at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) lay bare the contours of this system of segregated and unequal health care in America in the mid-20th century. This blog showcases four items that highlight Dr. Berry’s multi-pronged, vigorous efforts to fight discrimination in medicine, as well as the impact of racial bias on his career and outlook.

1958: A Meeting in Segregated New Orleans

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Letter from Dr. Berry objecting to a medical society meeting being held in segregated New Orleans, 1958

In 1954, in a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public accommodations was unconstitutional, and that “separate-but-equal” education and services were not equal at all. The ruling was a key turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

In many southern states, however, the ruling was met with stiff resistance. When the American College of Gastroenterology scheduled its 1958 annual meeting in New Orleans, Dr. Berry concluded he would not be able to attend due to continued racial discrimination there and “long standing custom.”

In a letter to the society’s chairman, Berry objected to the choice of a meeting location where racial segregation continued to be practiced. He asked that the organization go on record against segregation, pointing out that organizations “must be willing to stand up and be counted.” Berry’s willingness to speak out against discrimination was a hallmark of his life.

Fighting for a Staff Appointment

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Letter from Dr. Berry appealing his denial of an appointment to the attending staff at a hospital, 1960

In 1934, Dr. Berry became a junior attending physician in gastroenterology at Chicago’s Provident Hospital, the first black-owned and operated hospital in the United States. A year later he became chairman of the Division of Gastroenterology, a position he held for 35 years.

While working at Provident, Berry also joined Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital in 1946, becoming the first black physician to do so. For the next 17 years, however, Berry fought to advance from a limited “courtesy” appointment to the attending staff, being told repeatedly he was not qualified, despite being known world-wide in his field.

In a letter of appeal sent to a Michael Reese official in 1960, Berry detailed his extensive career accomplishments and his concern that he found himself still confined to the “fringes.” Berry’s experience was common at the time. Few black physicians were named to permanent staff positions at non-black hospitals well into the 20th century due to racial discrimination.

Integrating the National Medical Association

Dr. Berry’s column on the importance of integrating the National Medical Association, 1965

In 1965, Berry became president of the National Medical Association (NMA). African American doctors, excluded by race from the American Medical Association (AMA), established the NMA in 1895 to fight discrimination in medical societies, as well as medical schools and hospitals. Berry had been a member for thirty years.

When the NMA was formed, white physicians were excluded. During his NMA presidency, Berry launched an ambitious program to integrate the NMA, convinced that it was needed to be effective and “in step with the times.” In the 1960s, constituent member societies of the AMA, particularly in the South, continued to deny African American doctors membership.

Berry appointed a special NMA committee to solicit membership of outstanding white doctors. In 1966, Berry proudly reported that one hundred white doctors from places like Yale, Harvard, and Columbia had joined the NMA. The AMA finally agreed to end its practice of racial exclusion of members in 1968.

Pressing the Medical Profession to End Discrimination 

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Dr. Berry’s remarks about ending racial discrimination in medicine, given at a National Medical Association–American Medical Association Liaison Committee luncheon meeting, 1966

When Berry became NMA president in 1965, significant social and political change was occurring nationwide. In 1964, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act.  A year later, Congress approved Medicare.

Berry, along with civil rights leaders, believed these new laws would be crucial tools for ending racial discrimination in hospitals and medicine. Berry reinvigorated a joint NMA-AMA “Liaison Committee” to push for an end to discrimination in medicine. Mindful that the AMA had officially opposed Medicare’s passage, Berry publicly declared that the AMA had a “moral obligation” to aggressively lead the way in implementing the new laws.

In addition to exhorting the AMA to deliver health care equality, Berry met and corresponded with federal officials responsible for assessing any continued discrimination in medical facilities receiving federal funds. As Berry noted in correspondence, “We will serve as a national force to implement the law with justice at the local level.”

A Happy Warrior


African American man (Leonidas Berry) seated at desk and looking at viewer.Happiness is unremitting zeal to achieve and faith to overcome formidable odds. Happiness is outwitting your adversary when you have done it with honesty and fairness. Happiness is measuring your triumph attained by sharpened intellect and hard-earned skills. Happiness is standing alone by the sea and watching a beautiful setting sun cast the lengthening shadow of a man and having the awareness of self-identity. —Leonidas H. Berry, 1971

Bound by a belief that doctors must participate in civic affairs in a democratic society, Berry deeply engaged in fighting the institutionalized racism that marked America during his lifetime.  Skillfully and tirelessly, he pressed the medical profession and government leaders to extend to all “the necessities of life in reasonable and just proportions.”

In some instances, Berry’s papers hint at the toll his activism took, with him noting he was “battled-scared and weary” and regretful that he would never see “the sunlit vistas of the mountaintop.”

In a 1971 dinner speech, Berry pondered, at age 69, whether he should be bitter for the discrimination that “beset the ambitions of his youth and up to the present day.” Instead, he stated he preferred to label himself a “Happy Warrior,” declaring that happiness comes from having a goal in life and aiming for the stars.

Berry’s papers housed at the National Library of Medicine tell a compelling story of how much he did, in fact, accomplish in life both himself and for others.

Portrait of a white womanAbigail Porter is a researcher and exhibition coordinator in the History of Medicine Division’s Exhibition Program at the National Library of Medicine.


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