by Mahaa Ahmed
Dr. Hildrus Poindexter, a specialist in tropical diseases, epidemiology, and public health, was the first African American to receive both an MD and PhD. He earned his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1929 and his PhD in immunology and microbiology from Columbia University in 1932. Eager to begin his career, Dr. Poindexter applied for a job at a U.S. laboratory in the Philippines but was rejected due to his race. He instead completed an internship at the John A. Andrew Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, one of few institutions open to African American students. His interest in community health led him to begin studying epidemiology through a health education program he implemented in Bullock County. Through epidemiological surveys, Dr. Poindexter was able to identify prevalent health conditions, such as malnutrition and syphilis, among African Americans living in the rural South. He sought to improve health through a multi-sectoral approach between local boards of health, religious institutions, and schools.
Dr. Poindexter became the head of Howard University Medical College in 1936 and received a Master of Public Health in tropical medicine in 1937 from Columbia University. In 1943, he joined the military and quickly became an expert on infectious diseases, such as malaria. He was awarded the Bronze Star for reducing malaria and schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms, among U.S. soldiers during World War II. He reduced the rate of malaria in the Solomon Islands by 86.4% in three months by implementing an infection control program. He served in the U.S. Public Health Service (U.S.P.H.S.) for 30 years and worked across Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, Europe, and the Middle East. While serving with the U.S.P.H.S., he was appointed director of the Mission to Liberia and oversaw laboratory and medical research in West Africa. The goal of the Mission to Liberia was to help the Liberian government with sanitation planning and the control of infectious diseases. While in Liberia, Dr. Poindexter trained health care workers, conducted epidemiological studies, and implemented programs to improve nutrition.
Upon his retirement from the U.S.P.H.S. in 1965, Dr. Poindexter returned to Howard University and taught courses in community health. He authored his autobiography, My World of Reality, in 1973 and discussed his experiences with racial injustice. Dr. Poindexter was the son of a former slave and born into poverty. He worked various jobs including railroad and foundry worker, coal miner, and high school teacher to support himself prior to enrolling in medical school. He wrote candidly about how he faced racism in the military and recounted how efforts were made to serve him meals in a separate tent from the main officers’ mess tent. He believed that knowledge is meant to be shared and spent the final years of his life teaching and mentoring the next generation of physicians and researchers. Dr. Poindexter was extremely passionate about learning and devoted his life to studying infectious diseases with hopes to improve human health.
Mahaa M. Ahmed is an Environmental Health MS student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
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