Harvard's Dr. Gus White pens memoir

Associated Press | 12/28/2010, 6:21 p.m.

Growing up in segregated Memphis during the segregation era, Augustus White III knew about those certain places off-limits to him as a black man — restrooms, diners and schools.

He just didn’t pay racial barriers much mind.

The son of a doctor and teacher became the first African American to graduate from Stanford Medical School, the first African American resident and surgery professor at Yale and later the first black department head at Harvard’s teaching hospitals.

Now 74 and one of the nation’s leading orthopedic surgeons, White is releasing a memoir on his life. The book, “Seeing Patients: Unconscious Bias in Health Care,” (Harvard University Press, $27.95) is also a call for more diversity in the medical field and the end to health care disparities, something the Harvard professor calls “the last frontier of racial prejudice.”

White said the book, scheduled for release next month, has been a lifelong project that began when he served in the Army as a surgeon during the Vietnam War. “I kept a journal and saw a lot of horrible things. Over time, that changed me,” said White, who considered calling the book “A Black Surgeon in Vietnam.”

Among horrors he remembers was treating servicemen —  black, white and Latino — who had body parts blown off. “Pain is an equalizer, and, of course, the greatest equalizer of all is death, of which I saw plenty,” White writes. “Death is the equal opportunity employer.”

He left the Army a strong opponent of the war.

Returning to civilian life, White said he soon became passionate about increasing ethnic diversity in the medical profession and fighting disparities in health care. It’s something he reminds colleagues whenever he speaks and attends medical conferences.

“He’s built the infrastructure in his profession that when he speaks, we listen,” said John Feagin, a retired orthopedic surgeon who lives in Vail, Colorado, and was White’s roommate in Vietnam.”`I’m just delighted with his book. There’s a lot in there about his life that I didn’t know.’’

White, born in Memphis to a middle-class family, said he noticed at a young age how few times blacks and whites interacted “except maybe at the nightclubs and brothels on Beale Street.” When White was 8, his father, Augustus White Jr., died suddenly, probably of a heart attack. That left White to be raised by an extended network of family and friends who often pushed and supported him during his unique educational path.

At 13, White was accepted to the largely white prep school, Mount Hermon School for Boys in Gill, Massachusetts, becoming one of four blacks in his class — his first introduction to New England. White writes that the experience prepared him to enter Brown University, where he became the first African American president of his fraternity.

“Each time I became the first black to do this or that, I knew people back in Memphis knew about it,” White said during a recent interview in his office. “Sometimes, when I went home to visit, they didn’t even have to say anything. I knew they knew, and I had their support. That’s all that mattered.”