Breaking Down Barriers

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August 05, 2016

When Dr. James M. Whittico Jr. moved to St. Louis in 1940 for a surgical internship, legal equality for African-Americans was not yet the law of the land. That wouldn’t happen until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing race-based discrimination and ending racial segregation in schools, businesses and public places across the country. 


But Whittico didn’t let segregation get in the way of pursuing his lifelong medical career, which ended when he retired in 2015 at the age of 99.


“I lived my whole life in segregated communities,” says Whittico, who was born in 1915 in the small coal mining town of Williamson, West Virginia. “I didn’t overcome segregation; I just put up with it and worked from within the system to change it.”


Now 101 years old, The Private Client Reserve client reflects on the many positions he’s held in the medical industry, helping him increase the number of black physicians and, in so doing, improving access to health care for African-Americans. “I think it’s important that black patients have access to physicians; I helped by breaking down barriers,” Whittico says.

Whittico earned his medical degree at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. He completed surgical medical training at the black-segregated Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis and a two-year fellowship in experimental surgery at Washington University. After earning certification by the American Board of Surgery and being inducted into the American College of Surgeons, he entered private practice in the early 1950s.


For more than 60 years, he owned and managed his own multispecialty, community-based group medical practice in St. Louis, providing immediate and affordable health care for African-Americans with an onsite clinical laboratory and radiology services.



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August 05, 2016

He also worked as a professor of surgery at Washington University Medical School and St. Louis University Medical School, where he was the Department of Surgery’s first-ever black professor of surgery.


During World War II, Whittico was the first black doctor from Missouri to become a military hospital chief surgeon in active duty. He was the commanding officer of the segregated 318th Medical Battalion, 93rd Infantry Division, serving two of his four years of service in the Southwest Pacific Theater. He received two Letters of Commendation and the Bronze Star Medal for his meritorious service.


Outside his medical practice, Whittico was president of the National Medical Association (NMA), which represents black doctors. Under his leadership, the NMA was awarded a $3 million National Institutes of Health grant to boost programs to recruit and train black doctors in the United States.


Within seven years, the funding helped open the doors of previously segregated medical schools for admission and graduation of minority students and helped raise the graduation rate of black doctors from 2 percent to 8 percent, according to Whittico. He argues that training more black physicians is an important step for addressing health disparities and expanding care to the needy.

Whittico also worked successfully to open the all-white St. Louis Metropolitan Medical Society and its state counterpart, the Missouri State Medical Association, to members of the Medical Forum, which consisted of black doctors. He says his efforts have paid off. More black doctors now have big-clinic affiliations and many participate on the clinical staffs of St. Louis medical schools.  


During his career, Whittico served as the first black physician on the board of the St. Louis City Department of Health & Hospitals and was the first black board member and chairman of the Missouri State Board of Health. He was also elected a lifetime board member of the Missouri division of the American Cancer Society. Since 1948, he has been a member of Central Baptist Church in St. Louis, where he initiated a health ministry with doctors, nurses and other health professionals to provide health services through the church. The church named its health ministry room after him on his 97th birthday.


Origins in West Virginia


Whittico grew up in segregated Williamson, West Virginia, as the son of the only black doctor in town, Dr. James Whittico Sr. His father served as a county health officer and was a friend and physician to black and white families alike — including West Virginia’s Hatfield family, known for its infamous feud with the McCoys. He taught his son the importance of working from within the system to affect change.

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August 05, 2016

Whittico still remembers vividly his childhood in segregated West Virginia. One memory, in particular, made a big impression.


“The Ku Klux Klan, which was pretty tough in those days in terms of lynching and other forms of racism, threatened to wipe out Third Avenue, where all the Negro businesses in town were located,” recalls Whittico, who’d found a discreet hiding spot from which to watch the impending torching with his mother, “who was about to have a stroke because she couldn’t get me home to safety. My dad went to the sheriff, who was a Hatfield — a member of the family to whom my dad had provided medical services as a county medical provider. The sheriff responded immediately by placing two World War II tripod machine guns at each end of that section of Third Avenue. The Ku Klux Klan heard about that and canceled what they planned to do.”


It was one of many close calls with racial extremists, who often marched by his home in their white hoods to burn crosses on the whites-only schoolyard up the street. “When they burned the cross, blacks were supposed to stay inside and turn the lights off. My dad did the opposite,” says Whittico. “He’d turn on all the lights and take my mother and me to sit on the porch.

While they marched on up to the schoolyard, he’d act like he was reading the paper. I don’t know how, but somehow he got by without being lynched.”


Instead of reciprocating violence, Whittico’s father made a special effort to integrate himself with township political leaders and his community, becoming an active and charitable member of it. His example taught Whittico that the best way to change the system is to be a part of it.


Dramatic changes in health care


Over the course of his career, Whittico has witnessed outstanding medical science advancements and dramatic changes in the practice of medicine. “Health care has become more technical, more complex, more expensive and more business-driven, all of which requires leading-edge medical management expertise,” he says. He also notes a significant change in the delivery of health care. 


“When my dad practiced medicine, all doctors except academic doctors began as private practitioners engaged in the private, solo practice of medicine,” he says. “Today we have managed care, which means most doctors are employees working for a hospital, medical group or corporate or government entity.”

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August 05, 2016

Although managed care in many instances improves the quality of health care, Whittico contends that it doesn’t necessarily improve access, as health care insurance remains unaffordable for many Americans — including those who are unemployed or underemployed. He’s an ardent supporter of universal health care insurance. “The United States is the only high-income nation in the world where the government doesn’t provide universal health care coverage, according to the World Health Organization. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health ranked the United States 17th among 17 high-income countries for health care outcomes.”


Whittico hopes that his successors in the medical community will carry his torch and advocate for universal health insurance, increased personal attention for patients and improved health outcomes.

“I like the idea of the Affordable Health Care Act, but it doesn’t do enough,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, universal health insurance is absolutely necessary to assure adequate health care coverage for all citizens of our country. We must also recapture a culture of preventative medicine and health literacy, or else I fear that all of our advancements in technology and science will be lost.”


Secret to success


Achieving so much for so many couldn’t have been easy, but Whittico makes it sound like it was. 


“I’ve just tried to do the best I can,” Whittico says. “It’s not important who you are. What’s important is what you accomplish, and I think I’ve accomplished a whole lot.”


Whittico said that he learned from his father to tear down barriers from the inside. 

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August 05, 2016

“If you don’t like the law, you can’t change it by overtly going against it. You have to try and get it changed by participating in the system. In my life, I’ve always tried to have a meeting of the minds by putting subjects on the legislative table for a vote. Maybe you win, maybe not, but that’s how it works in a democratic society.”


Whittico now lives at home with his son Jarrhet.

His wife Gloria of 66 years died in 2014 at the age of 90. Asked for the secret to his long marriage, he replies: “Two words: Yes, dear.” Asked for the secret to his success and longevity, he shrugs.


“I just worked,” he says. “I got up in the morning, went to work, came home in the evening, ate and went to bed. Then I got up the next morning and did it again. People expect it to be very complex, but it’s very simple: I just did my job.”


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