AAOS Bulletin - April, 2006

2006 Diversity Award winner breaks color barriers

By Carolyn Rogers

Augustus (“Gus”) A. White III, MD, PhD, will never forget a telegram he received in 1955, the summer before his senior year at Brown University. The wire informed him that his college fraternity, Delta Upsilon (DU), was canceling its national convention rather than allow him—the first African-American student to pledge the all-white fraternity—to attend.

It was a harsh blow, but the modest yet driven young man didn’t allow the incident to divert him from his goals.

Dr. White (right) received the 2006 Diversity Award from Stuart L. Weinstein, MD, during the AAOS Annual Meeting.

Instead, he pursued his dream of becoming a surgeon, breaking several more “color barriers” in the process. In 1961, he became the first African-American graduate of Stanford University Medical School and, two years later, the first African-American surgical resident at Yale University School of Medicine.

As a result, “the theme of diversity, and the value and importance of diversity has been a recurrent theme in my mind and in my experience, like a Bach concerto,” Dr. White says. In the decades that followed, he not only went on to become a renowned spine surgeon, he also became a driving force for diversity and culturally competent care in orthopaedics.

2006 AAOS Diversity Award

In recognition of an uncompromising life’s work in promoting professional excellence in himself and all those around him, irrespective of ethnicity or gender, the Academy selected Dr. White as the recipient of the 2006 AAOS Diversity Award. The honor recognizes AAOS fellows who have significantly contributed to the advancement of diversity in orthopaedics through the recruiting, mentoring and leadership of minority and women orthopaedists, and the treatment of diverse patient populations.

Dr. White received the Diversity Award during the 2006 Annual Meeting hld in March. The award includes an unrestricted $5,000 honorarium to help the recipient continue his or her work in diversity.

“Dr. White is a soft-spoken, distinguished, accomplished, thoughtful and respectful individual who has quietly pushed back medicine’s color lines,” says Douglas W. Jackson, MD, 1997-1998 AAOS president. “He has done this through his leadership, which is anchored by scholarly recognition in the field of orthopaedics, through his tireless work for culturally competent and diverse medical care, and as a teacher and mentor for all levels of students.”

Barry Merkin, a friend from Dr. White’s college days at Brown, agrees.

“Knowing Gus well over the decades has given me the opportunity to observe a lifetime of enormous achievement in spite of enormous challenges,” says Merkin, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “He is a legendary role model.”

Leading by example

After serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1966-1967, Dr. White studied at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, obtaining his PhD in orthopaedic biomechanics in 1970. There, he met his wife Anita, with whom he has three grown daughters.

Dr. White returned to Yale in 1970, where he joined the faculty as an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery, and was subsequently made director of the Engineering Laboratory for Musculoskeletal Disease—a currently-operating laboratory, which he had a leadership role in founding.

“During his years at Yale, Dr. White was instrumental in efforts to accept and train women and minorities in orthopaedic surgery,” says Charles H. Epps Jr., MD. “In fact, he was prominent in the recruitment of Claudia Thomas, MD, who not only was the first African-American woman to train in medicine at Yale, but also went on to become the first woman of her race to be certified by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery and a member of the AAOS.”

Following Dr. White’s example, Dr. Thomas worked at Johns Hopkins for a number of years and helped to recruit the largest number of minorities ever to train at that institution.

In 1978, Dr. White was recruited to Harvard and Beth Israel Hospital, where he served as orthopaedic surgeon-in-chief until 1991. He also founded the academic orthopaedic program at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Dr. White has also served as a trusted advisor and leader to countless students, orthopaedic residents and colleagues, Dr. Jackson says. “His legacy continues to grow through the many he has mentored and inspired.”

Supporting diversity at Brown

While actively promoting diversity at Yale and Harvard, Dr. White also supported diversity efforts at his alma mater, Brown University. Over the past four decades, Dr. White has been intimately involved in numerous committees and other efforts to enhance diversity and pluralism at Brown.

Following a 1985 campus protest over decreasing minority enrollment at Brown, Dr. White urged the university to form a committee of independent visitors to study racial issues and “recommend a course of action for changing the climate of racial relations.” Dr. White was appointed to the committee, whose landmark report, “The American University and the Pluralist Ideal,” set Brown on a course toward greater diversity and a pluralist perspective. In 1998, Dr. White chaired a second “Visiting Committee on Diversity”—comprised of 15 prominent scholars and alumni— which revisited issues of diversity, pluralism and community at Brown.

Formalizing the Gladden Society

“Dr. White is largely responsible for the current direction and success of the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedics Society

(JRGOS),” says E. Anthony Rankin, MD. “In the early 1990s, Gus energized a group of minority orthopaedists to press for greater representation in the AAOS, and out of that effort was born the current JRGOS. He was the society’s first president and helped it grow and become an important organization for minority orthopaedists and others.”

Dr. White’s vision and efforts also led to the establishment of the AAOS Diversity Committee—a first for the Academy, Dr. Rankin adds. “Gus served as its first chairman from 1996 to 2001. Under his leadership, the Diversity Committee accomplished many firsts for the AAOS, and he established diversity as critical to the Academy’s mission.”

Master of Harvard’s Oliver Wendell Holmes Society

Since 2001, Dr. White has served as advisor, mentor and father figure to numerous medical students through his role as Master of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Society—one of five academic societies at Harvard Medical School.

As Master, his goal is to “educate students to be excellent scientists and clinicians who will provide compassionate care to all of their patients, while preserving their own well-being so they can serve long and happily,” he says.

Dr. White also wants to ensure that Harvard Medical School produces “culturally competent” physicians who practice racial equality, are culturally sensitive and are aware of health care disparities, as well as their own biases.

One of the major hurdles to achieving this goal is the fact that faculty members never learned ‘cultural competence’ in school. “It’s the only subject they’re being asked to teach that they were never taught in medical school,” Dr. White explains. “It’s essential that we develop and educate faculty members who are capable of addressing and teaching cultural competence.

“Gus knows if he is successful at Harvard, this will have an impact far beyond the walls of the medical school,” says Louis W. Sullivan, MD, a former secretary of U.S. Health and Human Services, and a longtime friend.

Myriad honors, awards

Dr. White’s lengthy list of accomplishments began in 1966 during the Vietnam War. As a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he cared for patients in a Vietnamese leper colony, volunteered for a medical rescue mission on a non-secured mountainside, and provided a year of hard, dedicated orthopaedic care for the troops. For all of these activities, Dr. White was awarded the Bronze Star.

Since then, Dr. White has received countless awards honoring his character, his distinguished career and his commitment to diversity in medicine. But of all his many honors, Dr. White says the Bronze Star has been the most beneficial.

“Receiving the Bronze Star affirmed my patriotism, loyalty and good citizenship, which gave me a good license to constructively criticize our country,” he says with a laugh.

Remarkable grace and style

“What is quite remarkable is the grace and style in which all of this has been accomplished,” says Mark C. Gebhardt, MD, current chair of orthopaedic surgery at Beth Israel, reflecting on Dr. White’s long record of success.

Those who know Dr. White say he remains unassuming; a leader who consistently shares credit or passes it on to someone else.

“You meet him, and he’s not the typically ambitious, overpowering persona who lights up a room,” says Merkin. “Rather, he’s got a quiet, effective, competent manner that in some ways is more charismatic and effective than the Hollywood version of a mover and shaker. He’s someone who just quietly conquers the world.”

When asked which activity or honor has given him the greatest satisfaction and happiness over the years, Dr. White replies, “What’s clearly the most gratifying is the positive feedback from patients, my 25 spine fellows, and professional colleagues.”

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