Article excerpt

'Dr. Bob'

THEY call him Dr. Bob.

In an age of specialists, two-weeks-in-advance appointments and digitalized diagnostic machines, he is that rarity of rarities: a highly trained physician who practices hands-on medicine and still makes house calls.

Because of his dedication to humanistic medicine and comprehensive health care, Dr. Robert Smith has become a legend in Jackson, Miss., where he is chief of staff-elect at Hinds General Hospital.

For more than 25 years, he has been expanding the boundaries of medical service in mississippi. he has also found time to ensure that the state's Black residents have access to everythin from the arts and health education to clean water. Perhaps his greatest contribution was to the development of the national Neighborhood Health Care Center system.

"He's a concerned and giving person who understands the importance of political action and high motivation among professionals," says Dr. John Hatch, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill public health specialist who worked with Dr. Smith in the comprehensive health care movement of the 1960s.

Dr. Bob's missionary-like dedication to the health and welfare of his patients is a source of amazement among colleagues and family alike. The physician is a study in perpetual motion. With a disarmingly broad smile, the beginning of a paunch and a five o'clock shadow, Dr. Bob routinely is at the hospital by 5:30 am. to make rounds. He squeezes in breakfast with community leaders before heading to his office at the Mississippi Family Health Center, the Jackson group practice he founded in 1970. And before wrapping up his day about 1 a.m., he has seen nearly 40 patients, attended numerous meetings and offered guidance to fledgling medical students.

Early on it became apparent that medicine was Robert Smith's calling. The ninth of 12 children of Joe Smith, a livestock broker, and the late Wilma P. Smith, a homemaker, Dr. Bob chose as a hero blood plasma pioneer Dr. Charles Drew, a Black surgeon. As a youth, he would sit under the staircase of his Terry, Miss., home and read discarded medical books when he was not raising champion Herefords, says his sister, Gladys Smith Green.

A Tougaloo College graduate, he attended Howard University Medical School before interning at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Had he accepted the hospital's prestigious obstetrics and gynecology appointment, he might have been at least $30,000 a year richer, friends say. Instead, he chose to fulfill a vow he'd made to himself to return South and serve its "suffering humanity."

The South he found 1962 was highly charged with the tension of social upheaval. "I was motivated by the fact that there were Black people trying to change things, and by the possibility of having an impact on the problems," he recalls. Dr. Smith joined a diverse group of conscientious doctors in picketing the American Medical Assn. convention in Atlantic City to gain the support and membership necessary for Black doctors in Jackson to win full hospital privileges. Working again with the physician's group, which became the Medical Committee for Human Rights, he risked physical harm and endured harassment to treat injured civil rights workers jailed while registering Black voters during the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964.

In the interim, he set up his own practice in Jackson and a clinic in the Mississippi Delta town of Mileston. The "suffering humanity" of the Black Delta community was much worse than he had imagined. "I knew people were poor, but I didn't know they didn't have enough to eat and were being turned away from health care," he says. "The first time I went to the Delta, I saw a baby who was three or four months old but looked like he was a newborn. He was completely malnourished. …