By John P. Rees and James Labosier ~
A new archival collection, the Louis W. Sullivan Papers, is now available at the National Library of Medicine for those interested in the history of the Department of Health and Human Services, Morehouse School of Medicine, public and minority health programs, and racial and ethnic diversity in the health professions.
The Louis W. Sullivan Papers consists of correspondence, speeches, briefing files, subject files, news clippings, photographs, videotapes, and awards and honors that predominantly document Louis Sullivan’s tenure as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) from 1989-1993. His pre- and post-HHS career as a hematology research scientist and medical educator, health policy expert, promoter of healthy lifestyles, advocate for improving health equity and disparities for Black and underserved populations, and increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the health professions are also documented.
Louis Wade Sullivan was born November 3, 1933 in Atlanta, Ga., however the family moved to Blakely, Ga. shortly thereafter. His mother was an English teacher and his father was a mortician who operated a funeral home and ambulance service. His parents sent him, and his brother Walter, to live with friends in Atlanta during the school year. As a young boy he found a role model in Dr. Joseph Griffin, a local physician. Sullivan was impressed both by his professional demeanor and skill and also by how rarely he encountered a Black physician, inspiring Sullivan to pursue a medical career early on.
Sullivan graduated from Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington high school in 1950 as salutatorian and in 1954 he graduated from Morehouse College magna cum laude with a degree in biology. His early career started in Boston, MA. after he earned his M.D. at the Boston University School of Medicine. Certified in internal medicine and hematology, Dr. Sullivan spent the 1960s and early 1970s researching and teaching at Boston City Hospital, Harvard University, and Boston University Medical Center with a short tenure as professor at Seton Hall College of Medicine. One of his most notable studies investigated the correlation between alcoholism and its effect on the human-blood forming system.
In 1966 he became co-director of Hematology at Boston University Medical Center. The next year he founded Boston University Hematology Service at Boston City Hospital and directed the Boston Sickle Cell Center. He remained acutely aware that, despite his success, he was still as relatively unique as a Black health care professional as Dr. Griffin had been thirty years earlier.
In 1975 he accepted an invitation from his alma mater, Morehouse College, to build a medical education program there. A two-year program in basic medical sciences established in 1978 matured by 1985 into the Morehouse School of Medicine, a four-year program under his stewardship as president and dean. He augmented his efforts to encourage minority medical education at Morehouse in 1977 by cofounding the Association of Minority Health Professions Schools, which advocated for training, career counseling and more scholarships for minorities in the United States. Looking more broadly at the lack of educational opportunities outside the U.S., in 1985 he was instrumental in founding Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB), which he chaired from 1994 to 2007. MESAB has raised scholarship funds in the U.S. and South Africa to educate thousands Black health professionals in South Africa.
In 1982, Dr. Sullivan was invited by Vice-President George H.W. Bush to accompany him on a diplomatic tour of African as one of several prominent Black Americans. Dr. Sullivan and Barbara Bush became close friends as they toured educational facilities and literacy programs. Mrs. Bush then joined the Morehouse School of Medicine Board of trustees and was a staunch supporter and outspoken advocate for the school. The Sullivans and Bushes developed their personal and professional relationship over the ensuing years leading to Dr. Sullivan leaving Morehouse to serve as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from 1989 to 1993 under now-President George H.W. Bush. As Secretary he supported several public and minority health initiatives. HHS released Healthy People 2000 as a guide to better health and disease preventions activities. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 mandated new FDA labeling on packaged foods to better inform consumers. And under Dr. Sullivan, HHS established the NIH Office of Minority Health, which ultimately became the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) and launched a $100 million minority male health and injury prevention program.
In 1993 Dr. Sullivan returned to Atlanta as president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine, which he continued until his retirement in 2002. In 2003 he then led the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Health Care Workforce, an outgrowth of a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to Duke University School of Medicine, which conducted research made policy recommendations addressing the scarcity of minorities in the health professions. The Commission led to the establishment of the Sullivan Alliance in 2005, which acted on the Commission’s reports and recommendations to emphasize the importance of racial and ethnic diversity in health professions and stimulate academic programs to carry out these initiatives.
In 2012 Sullivan published The Morehouse Mystique: Becoming a Doctor at the Nation’s Newest African American Medical School, a history of Morehouse School of Medicine’s creation. He published his autobiography Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine in 2014, and We’ll Fight It Out Here, in 2022. Several awards and scholarships have been created in his name and Sullivan is the recipient of more than 70 honorary degrees.
The Louis W. Sullivan Papers consist of 100 boxes of records which predominantly chronicle Dr. Sullivan’s tenure as Secretary of Health and Human Services from 1989-1993. His pre- and post-HHS career as a hematology research scientist and medical educator, health policy expert, advocate for improving health equity and disparities for Black and underserved populations, and increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the health professions are also documented to a smaller degree. Additionally, a digital archive of top web-search results for Dr. Sullivan is accessible online.
Watch a 2016 NLM History Talk by Dr. Sullivan, “A Personal Perspective on Race, Opportunity and the U.S. Health System.”
John Rees is Archivist and Digital Resources Manager for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.
James Labosier is Associate Curator for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.