Introducing: David Satcher, M.D., CDC Director

Ebony, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Introducing: David Satcher, M.D., CDC Director


He was only two years old, but remembers clearly lying in bed, sick and in pain, laboring heavily to take every breath the whooping cough was stealing from his tiny body. It was 1943 on his parents' farm in rural Anniston, Alabama, and the lone Black physician gave the little boy just one week to live. But his mother was able to save his life with a brand of ingenuity unique to generations of Black, southern mothers. And by the time he turned eight, David Satcher was dreaming of becoming Anniston's family doctor.

Although Dr. David Satcher has never practiced in Anniston, he has spent most of his career training countless numbers of young men and women in family medicine. And now, with a distinguished career in epidemiology, disease research and academic medicine to his credit, the dream gets bigger still as he takes over as the first Black director of the world's premier epidemiological organization -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency which, since 1946, has played a major role in tracking and preventing the spread of once-fatal disease, like polio, smallpox, tuberculosis and whooping cough.

With chief responsibility for the CDC's $2 billion-plus budget, Dr. Satcher will direct nearly 6,000 world-renowned scientists and technicians headquartered in Atlanta's northeast suburbs and stationed in satellite centers in Colorado, Ohio and West Virginia. His avant-garde scientific team works closely with physicians around the globe to unlock the mysteries of humanity's most dreadful plagues.

Unexplored, yet conquered, frontiers are commonplace in a celebrated career that most recently includes Dr. Satcher's experiences as president of Meharry Medical College and CEO of Meharry/Hubbard Hospital. A principal architect of another national first -- the merger of White-controlled Metropolitan Nashville General Hospital into Meharry/Hubbard -- he brings to the CDC a reputation for confronting controversy head-on.

So no doubt he will continue that course at the CDC, which has been at the center of a growing national debate over possible AIDS information strategies. Dr. Satcher's prescription: education, up front and in your face.

Educate and stress to young people the value of abstinence, then tell them that if you engage in unprotected sex, you are in danger of contracting a disease that has no cure. After that, show them how to protect themselves, says the son of a Bible scholar.

It's not likely America's conservative coterie will clamor to embrace Dr. Satcher's frank approach to the AIDS epidemic. In the past, religious and philosophical discord surrounding the direction of the country's AIDS awareness program has splintered national opinion and fueled political wranglings. Raised to respect religious differences Dr. Satcher says he's not out to force his opinions on anyone.

But he also says that "nobody is going to say to me because it's politically not possible to talk about condoms, that the Centers for Disease Control shouldn't be doing it. If somebody doesn't want the information because of their religion, then that's one thing." But the people who want and need it, he says, cannot be denied because of somebody else's dogma. Personal rectitude, including his own, he asserts, cannot hinder this critically needed education. "I don't think people deserve to die because they don't have the same religion I have."

In addition to more candid AIDS education, Dr. …

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