Reflections on the Life and Career of Dr. Mitchell Spellman

Funeral Service for Dr. Mitchell Spellman
The Chapel of Our Lady
Georgetown Preparatory School
November 23, 2013

It is a humbling experience for me to be here this morning to offer these words of appreciation for the life of Dr. Mitchell Spellman. I wish to express my most profound sympathies to you his family at what I know is a most difficult time. Throughout his long and rich life he fused his love of family with a vocation for healing—please know of my continued prayers at this time of loss.

I came to know Dr. Spellman very early in my career when he served as a member of the Board of Directors of Georgetown University in the mid-1980s. His connection to Georgetown went back much earlier—throughout his years of leadership and service at Howard he also served as a member of our clinical faculty, offering surgical instruction to Georgetown residents and medical students. In 1974 we had the privilege of presenting him with an honorary degree at the commencement exercises of our Medical School. I count it among the greatest experiences of my formation, that at a very young age, I had the privilege of knowing and working with Dr. Spellman.

It is impossible to reflect on Dr. Spellman’s life without recognizing two dominant stories that were unfolding throughout his lifetime—two stories to which he was an extraordinary contributor. These are the stories of the American civil rights movement and the rise of the American academic health center.

This past Monday we welcomed to campus the great historian of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his magisterial three-volume history, in this, the fiftieth, year since the Letter from Birmingham Jail, the I Have a Dream speech, and the loss of four little girls at the church in Birmingham.

In his reflections, Mr. Branch described his purpose in crafting the trilogy: “I have tried to make biography and history reinforce each other by knitting together a number of personal stories along the main seam of an American epoch…” (xi). During our lifetimes, during the extraordinary life and career of Dr. Spellman, the American civil rights story is the “main seam” of the unfolding American story—our effort to work out what is unfulfilled in the vision of our Founders. I believe that another story that we could add to those provided by Mr. Branch is that of Mitchell Spellman.

Beginning in a historically black college in the deep South—moving from Dillard to study at the superb medical school at Howard University; with his MD, moving to Cleveland and Minnesota where he continued his education and training; returning to Howard in 1954 and joining the faculty with the highest possible qualifications—an MD/PhD; serving with distinction until called to serve for nearly a decade in Los Angeles in establishing a new postgraduate medical school, and then to Harvard where he served for a quarter-century as a dean and faculty member—the arc of his career tracks the arc of the civil rights story.

As a young man pursuing medical education in 1940, the options were few. Howard University provided him with a home and a mentor, in Charles Drew. Here, both during his studies in Medical School and when he returned in 1954, he could develop his promise and potential, launch his vocation. These were not easy years for African-Americans in Medicine. While this period saw the arc of civil rights move from Topeka to Montgomery to Little Rock to Greensboro to Birmingham to Selma, the discriminatory practices of the AMA were not ended until well after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

A surgeon of Dr. Spellman’s talent had to build his career along the great fault-line of our nation—the enduring and persistent legacy of segregation. To put in perspective his extraordinary career—today African-Americans make up approximately 12% of the US population and comprise 2.2% of physicians and medical students (American Medical Association). 2.2%! The needle hasn’t moved on this number throughout the last century. It is hard to imagine a more difficult context in which to build such a distinguished career—a career that began at Dillard and ended at Harvard.

A second story that emerged during these years and to which Dr. Spellman offered incalculable contributions was the development of the American academic health center. In the years following the Second World War we came to invent a distinctly American institution. The giants in academic medicine of the last half-century created a select set of institutions that sought to fully connect patient care, medical education, and research in ways that had no precedent. In the academic health center, hospitals, practice groups, residents and medical students, basic scientists became elements of interlocking, mutually reinforcing missions. The unprecedented expansion of the role of the Federal government, particularly in support of research by the National Institutes of Health provided the resources for this advance.

The arc of Dr. Spellman’s career tracks the arc of the evolution of the academic health center. But in his life these two arcs—the arc of civil rights and the arc of academic medicine came together in his personal story. Perhaps his greatest contribution came when in 1969 he became the Founding Dean of the Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School in Los Angeles, what today is the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

In 1965, following the Watts Riots, a special commission was established, chaired by John McCone. Among the conclusions: the “health conditions of the residents [in the area] are relatively poor and facilities to provide medical care are insufficient” (Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots). The Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School was established to respond and Dr. Spellman was asked to serve as the Founding Dean, a School named in honor of his mentor.

It was here that Dr. Spellman ensured that no academic health center could claim to be fulfilling its purpose unless it was responding to the needs of its community. When Gene called me on Thursday and invited me to share this moment with you, I went back to our archives—universities save everything—and listened to Dr. Spellman’s commencement address at Georgetown in 1974. I, of course, was reminded of the dignity and elegance of his voice, of his presence. But I was especially moved when he said: “The mission of the Charles R. Drew School is to create the conditions where health education and inquiry are based on service to a community and its people….” This is what we now refer to as “community medicine” and the Drew School was the exemplar of extending the mission of an academic health center to those un-served and under-served by traditional structures. The School was a microcosm of what could be developed—a model of what we could achieve if we accepted our responsibilities to care for all of our brothers and sisters.

Over the past four years in a series of seminars, I have had the privilege of teaching students how to grapple with John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University, a series of lectures he delivered in the mid-19th century when he was founding the first Catholic university in Ireland. Listen to Newman:

Hence it is that [an] education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what…I have venture[d] to call a philosophical habit. (76)

Whatever you choose to call it—a “liberal education,” a “philosophical habit”—when I think of Dr. Spellman, I am reminded of Cardinal Newman’s words—freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.

The Lord has Given.

We have had the privilege of sharing our lives with a man whose personal story brought him into the “main seam” of the American story. A man devoted to his family, to his vocation; a humble and honorable man, a man of dignity. A man who expanded the imagination of a profession to better serve all of God’s people.

The Lord has Taken Away.

We now move forward, saddened in our loss but knowing of the privilege we all shared—we lived our lives during the life of Dr. Mitchell Spellman and we are all the better for it.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Works Cited
American Medical Association. “The Civil Rights Era: 1955-1968.” The History of African Americans and Organized Medicine Project. American Medical Association, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013. <>.

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Print.

Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots. “Welfare and Health.” Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?. Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 2 Dec. 1965. Web. 23 Nov. 2013. <>.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982. Print.