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Social Justice and Community Health Centers: Commitment to One Gave Rise to the Other
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Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 16.4 (2005) 607-611

Commitment to One Gave Rise to the Other

D. Brad Wright

As an undergraduate biology major, while I still had my sights set on a career in medicine, I began my honors thesis, a comparative health policy analysis of the United States and Sweden. It was a sort of natural experiment to observe the outcomes of universal coverage. One of the central components of my work was a model depicting the interplay between health and its social determinants. Now, as I pursue a master's degree in health policy and having become acquainted with the work of H. Jack Geiger, MD, MS, ScD (hon.) I see that, while my model was accurate, it was by no means novel.

Nearly two centuries earlier, in the early to mid-1800s, the basic concepts of social medicine had been developed by Louis-René Villermé in France; Charles Turner Thackrah, Edwin Chadwick, and Friedrich Engels in England; and Rudolf Virchow, Salomon Neumann, and Rudolf Leubuscher in Germany. By the early 1950s, the principles of community-oriented primary care were being articulated in South Africa. A decade later, Dr. Geiger applied those principles to the problems of health and poverty in the United States.

For the better part of two hours on the night of March 3, 2005, Dr. Geiger spoke to a group at George Washington University about his life and, at greater length, about the lives of others. A co-founder of the first community health center in Columbia Point in Boston (along with Dr. Count Gibson) Dr. Geiger traced for me the origins of the community health center movement in the United States. His story is as unique as it is inspirational.

Geiger was born and raised in New York, and it was during his adolescence there that the foundation of social justice that would lead him to civil rights activism and community health care reform was laid. The direction his life would eventually take was not at all obvious when he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin intent on becoming a writer. It was while he was at Wisconsin that the young Jack Geiger joined the 1942 efforts of civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. At the time, Randolph, Rustin, and their followers were planning a march on Washington unless then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order to ban the widespread racial discrimination in defense plants, which were busy churning out armaments for World War II. Roosevelt made concessions and the march was cancelled.

In 1943, while in Madison, Geiger helped found an early chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the organization that came to play central roles in the Civil Rights movement. (An interracial group of students had founded CORE in Chicago a year earlier, in 1942; many of them were members of the Chicago branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization seeking to change racist attitudes, which itself was strongly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's teachings of nonviolent resistance.)

During World War II, Geiger enlisted in the Merchant Marines, the only branch of the military that was racially integrated at that time, trained as a radio/radar officer, and sailed for years on the only American vessel captained by a black man, Captain Hugh Mulzac of SS Booker T. Washington (itself the first major U.S. oceangoing vessel to be named after an African American). After his wartime service, Geiger returned to school at the University of Chicago from 1947 to 1951. While his commitment to the civil rights movement never faltered, the focus of his studies moved from writing to biology.

During his time at the University of Chicago, Geiger was actively involved in an organization called the American Veterans Committee, and served as the chair of its civil rights committee. When presented with allegations that the University of Chicago's Billings Hospital was denying care to black patients, Geiger and the rest of the committee launched an investigation. In little time at all, they uncovered atrocious acts of racial discrimination. Black patients were being turned away and sent to Provident Hospital (at that time...



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