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Missouri Historical Society dedicates new collection to renowned Black doctor’s legacy

Dr. John H. Gladney was the first Black ear, nose, and throat specialist in the city.
Missouri Historical Society
Dr. John H. Gladney was the first Black ear, nose and throat specialist in the city.

Dr. John H. Gladney rose to prominence in the 1950s.

In 1956, he opened his private practice, becoming the first Black ear, nose and throat specialist in St. Louis. He was later tapped as the first Black doctor in the country to head a department of otolaryngology, holding the post at St. Louis University School of Medicine. In his field, he’s known for his research efforts making the link between hearing loss and diabetes. That work led to his induction into the American Triological Society in 1962 as its first Black fellow.

Gladney died in 2011 at age 89. His medical legacy and dedication to the St. Louis region is now the center of a new Missouri Historical Society collection. St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Gwen Moore, the curator of urban landscape and community identity at the Missouri Historical Society, about the collection and how Gladney became a key figure in medical history.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: Who was Dr. John H. Gladney?

Gwen Moore: Dr. John H. Gladney was an ear, nose and throat specialist. He was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. Dr. Gladney said his mother died when he was [6] years old. That had a profound impact on him. He remembers visiting her in this segregated hospital where Black people were assigned to the basement, and it was obviously substandard. He said that's when he really, at even age [6], got this interest in medicine just from seeing his mother waste away like that in those circumstances. So, he did graduate from high school in Little Rock. [He] went onto an HBCU, Talladega [College] in Alabama. From there he went to Meharry [Medical College]. When he graduated from Meharry, he came to Homer G. Phillips. Homer G. Phillips was this beacon where a lot of Black doctors and other medical professionals, nurses, got their training. He was not just a practicing physician. He was also a researcher. He did this research that really saw a connection between diabetes and hearing loss. Because of that, he became the first Black fellow that was inducted into the American [Laryngological, Rhinological and Otological] Society. And that's like the premiere society for ear, nose and throat specialists in the country. So, it was quite an honor.

A surgical tool donated to the new Dr. John H. Gladney collection at the Missouri Historical Society.
Missouri Historical Society
A surgical tool donated to the new Dr. John H. Gladney collection at the Missouri Historical Society

Lewis-Thompson: What led to him becoming the first Black doctor to lead a department of otolaryngology in the U.S.? That’s a pretty big deal.

Moore: He was a practicing physician of course. But he was also a researcher. The fact that he did this research and was looking into the causes, seeing that link between diabetes and hearing loss, I think that he was unusual in that field. I think what's really interesting about his story, when you think about somebody like Dr. Gladney, there were many doctors like that that were practicing at Homer G. Phillips Hospital. That came to St. Louis because of Homer G. Phillips Hospital. Started private practices because they were drawn here by Homer G. Phillips Hospital. And so, he was one of those really prominent physicians among many prominent physicians that came here to practice. So I'm not surprised that he was the first African American to do that because we had so much Black talent.

Lewis-Thompson: Why was Dr. Gladney influential in the St. Louis region?

Moore: He was very engaged in his community. The fact that he was interested in helping young Black students. We talk about how he influenced young Black doctors on a university level. But think about how he influenced young Black children in elementary schools where he went there and he talked to them, and he read to them and he interacted with them. And he let them know about his success as a physician. That may sound a little trite, but it actually is true that he saw his calling as beyond medicine. And he used his skills and his talents as a doctor and his influence and his prominence to really try to elevate others.

Lewis-Thompson: How did this collection come to be? What's in it?

Moore: His daughter Constance Gladney Agard was the initial contact. So, we got his medical tools. We got some of his yearbooks, photographs. ... We got papers and documents.

Lewis-Thompson: Why is it important for more people to know about Dr. Gladney's legacy?

Moore: He helps us to tell the story of Homer G. Phillips. It tells us multiple stories related to the city's history and the larger history of Black medicine. You cannot tell a story about Black medicine nationally or internationally without mentioning Homer G. Phillips and these pioneering doctors that helped to bring attention to this city and to Black medicine.

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.