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By just doing his job, Dr. Whittico helped make sure other blacks could enter medicine

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 9, 2009 - Among African-American trailblazers in medicine in St. Louis, few can match the boundless energy or longevity of Dr. James M. Whittico Jr. He has been on the job for 67 years and shows no signs of putting away his stethoscope.

On a recent Tuesday morning at 5:30, he was talking on the telephone about a patient at SSM St. Mary's Health Center. Later, he attended two meetings that consumed most of his morning. At noon, he dutifully picked up lunch for his wife, Gloria, who hadn't been feeling well when he left the house.

In the afternoon, he arrived at his office in the old St. Luke's Hospital building in the West End to see patients until around 3:30. Then, taking a short breather, he engaged in a rare indulgence, a single piece of chocolate, which he munched as he chatted with a reporter, interrupted occasionally by the telephone. ("You could save an hour a day without it," he jokes.) By 7 p.m. Whittico headed home.

This Tuesday was a bit more grueling than usual since he has cut back considerably on his work. Even so, a reduced workload is a lot for a physician who will celebrate his 94th birthday later this month -- perhaps one of the oldest doctors still practicing medicine in St. Louis.

Whittico arrived in St. Louis in 1940, just three years after Homer G. Phillips Hospital opened its doors. He came from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. to do an internship at Phillips.

Over the years, he became a general surgeon and fellow of the American College of Surgeons, enjoyed staff privileges at about a dozen area hospitals, and taught at Washington University and St. Louis University medical schools. Outside his practice, he found time to lead the National Medical Association (NMA), which represents black doctors, and worked to integrate Missouri's local and state medical groups. Along the way, he also headed up a highly effective national program to boost the number of blacks going into medicine.

A proud -- and embarrassing -- moment

In 1968, Whittico wrote then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, asking him to speak at the NMA convention. It would turn out to be one of his proudest moments -- and one of his most embarrassing. The White House never acknowledged the invitation; the president simply showed up unannounced on the morning of a speech that would make Johnson the first sitting president to address a major medical organization. Because he hadn't heard from the president, Whittico had found a backup speaker. Then on the morning of the big event, Whittico remembered looking out of his window at the Shamrock-Hilton Hotel and seeing an official helicopter touching down on a landing pad, carrying Secret Service agents. Then came word to Whittico that the president's motorcade was on its way to the hotel.

Later, as Whittico sat proudly on the stage, enjoying Johnson's address, he had no way of knowing that a commotion was going on in a corridor outside the convention room. The person creating the disturbance? Whittico's father, Dr. James M Whittico Sr., a widely respected physician in NMA circles but in no mood to be polite that morning.

"I'm at the head table and later learned that my dad was out in the corridor fussing," Whittico says. "He was a Republican, you know, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who was out in the corridor demanding to know what on earth is happening to the National Medical Association that it would let a Democratic president speak to them. When I heard about that, all I could say was, 'Oh, my god!' "

It didn't help that the incident not only detracted from the president's speech but got the elder Whittico's picture in the Houston Chronicle. But embarrassed as young Whittico might have been, it did not hurt his relationship with the president. Later, the White House invited Whittico to a state dinner. In addition, the NMA would eventually win a $3 million National Institutes of Health grant to boost programs to recruit and train black doctors.

The funding would help to raise the number of African-American doctors to 5 percent of physicians, from about 2 percent, Whittico said. But then came the Supreme Court's Bakke decision (1978), which put the brakes on affirmative action programs, particularly for medical schools. In the wake of the Bakke case, Whittico says the number of African-American doctors fell to about 3 percent -- and has stayed around there since. Like many other black physicians, he argues that training more black physicians is one important step for addressing health disparities and expanding care to the needy.

The Hatfields -- and the Whitticos

Young Whittico grew up in Williamson, W.Va., a mining area where his father had encountered his share of prejudice while practicing medicine in the small town. But an unexpected event caused his father's reputation to rise. He became a friend of the Hatfield family, known for its legendary feud with the McCoys.

Whittico can't vouch for the story, but he enjoys telling it: One day, the matriarch of the Hatfield family was ready to deliver a baby, and the white doctor could not be found. Some of Hatfield's sons summoned Dr. Whittico Sr., the only other doctor in the town.

"It was nearly dark when they took him up into the mountain," Whittico says, "and when they got to a clearing old man Hatfield was sitting on the porch. He was upset when he saw that the doctor was black and insisted that he wasn't about to let no black doctor touch his wife. Well, the story is that the boys tied the old man to a tree to allow my father to tend to the wife. They then untied the father to see the baby (a boy). From that day on, my father and the Hatfields were good friends."

Such a story about race sounds odd coming from Whittico, a quiet, unassuming man known for his shock of white hair and warm smile under a matching white moustache. It's a face and demeanor that tries to sidestep bigotry rather than confront it. But there are exceptions, such as the time when he and other doctors wanted to buy a building to open a group practice.

"There were five of us with good bank accounts, good credit and we couldn't get a loan in the city," he says. "This was about 35 years ago."

On that day, when his livelihood might be at risk, Whittico was in no mood for hearing excuses. He remembered a real estate agent apologizing for the banks and adding, "You know how it is."

Whittico says he shot back, "No, I don't know 'how it is'. You tell me 'how it is'?"

As he tells the story, he sounds as if he can still feel the sting of prejudice that he felt was behind the bankers' decision to reject the loan. Luckily, an insurance group eventually provided the doctors with a loan to buy the building.

'Just do your job'

Throughout his career, Whittico has stood by the NMA (as well as the Mound City Medical Forum) even after he pushed successfully for whites to open up the St. Louis Metropolitan Medical Society and its state counterpart, the Missouri State Medical Association, to members of the Medical Forum, composed of black doctors.

"Doing that turned out to be a lot easier than I expected," he says, noting that once he spoke of building closer ties between the society and the forum. After that, he says, forum members were routinely invited to participate in the society's events.

"The situation evolved from that to the point that we've even had black physicians as president of the St. Louis Metropolitan Medical Society," he says, referring to the election of two African-American doctors -- Drs. William Banton and Nathaniel Murdock -- to head the society.

Whittico adds that the NMA, which he calls "the liberal arm of medicine in this country," will always be needed for that reason. The NMA, he says, was the first medical group to endorse what he calls progressive programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, while the AMA either sat on its hands or opposed them.

Whittico acknowledges "surreptitious" segregation in some medical circles, but he adds: "There's no doubt that the opportunities have increased as far as staff affiliations and big clinic affiliations. We have any number of black doctors now in departments at Barnes, many black doctors participating on the clinical staffs of both medical schools."

As for his own success, Whittico attributes his rise to black and white mentors and to humility.

"I've seldom aspired to a particular position," he says. "I always try to do the best I can, always telling myself, 'just do your job.' "

Just doing his job, he says, is why he ended up presiding over the NMA at the time of President Johnson's visit. And why he ended up heading the local Mound City Medical Forum at the very time the NMA held its convention in St. Louis. And the reason he got to know the president and the right people in federal agencies to help the NMA apply for and win a grant to boost the number of black doctors.

In the case of Whittico, just doing one's job definitely has paid off. How else to explain his remarkable staying power just six years short of 100?

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.