Dr. David Satcher, 16th Surgeon General of the United States, sat down with Dr. Joan Reede at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on October 27, 2015 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Emily Cuccarese/ Harvard Chan School.)

How do aspiring servant leaders become purposeful pioneers in public health?

A brief reflection on a conversation with David Satcher by Michael Mensah

David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., former Surgeon General, former director of the Center for Disease Control, and current Founding Director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse College, insists that he never set out to be a pioneer. His Voices in Leadership interview on October 27th at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health revealed the impetus behind his pioneering purpose.

Watch 16th Surgeon General of the United States Dr. David Satcher’s full talk with the Voices in Leadership series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health from October 27, 2015.

Sick with pneumonia as a toddler on an Alabama farm, young Satcher was near death. His parents called the only Black physician in Anniston, his hometown. Thanks to his physician’s infinite patience while spending the entire day with the family, young Satcher survived against all odds[1]. Out of gratitude, Satcher’s mother told him his survival tale nearly every day. No wonder why on his fifth birthday, he planned to see his hero, the physician who saved his life. Alas, this never happened; his hero suffered a fatal stroke soon before Satcher’s birthday.

From these childhood experiences followed his ambition to practice medicine.

Dr. David Satcher, 16th Surgeon General of the United States, sat down with Dr. Joan Reede at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on October 27, 2015 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Emily Cuccarese/ Harvard Chan School.)

By the time he was a pre-medical student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, childhood gratitude had matured into a steadfast passion for justice. Participating in the Civil Rights Movement, Satcher took a stand against injustice. He was jailed and even imprisoned for this, risking repeatedly his medical school dream to advocate for our better future. This risk was high: in 1964, the year after he graduated from Morehouse, only 2.2% of medical students were African American[2].

The theme of risking self for a greater cause recurs throughout Dr. Satcher’s career. As Surgeon General, Satcher committed not only to reduce, but to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities[3] and, in 1999, released the first mental health report of the Surgeon General[4]. As such, he increased the priority of addressing these issues. Such devotedness goes beyond individual pride, spilling over into an intelligent, purposeful empathy that coalesces team members into an interdependent whole.

Dr. David Satcher, 16th Surgeon General of the United States, sat down with at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on October 27, 2015 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Emily Cuccarese/ Harvard Chan School.)

Indeed, when asked if others have been part of his journey, Satcher insists, “Others have been most of the journey.”

He then describes how leadership, teamwork and the goal to eliminate health disparities are intertwined: “In order to eliminate disparities in health and to achieve health equity, we need leaders who, first, care enough. Then we need leaders who know enough, leaders who have the courage to do enough, and leaders who will persevere until the job is done.”

Recognizing passion’s pivotal role in leadership reflects the depth of Satcher’s commitment. Purposeful pioneers, like Satcher, are guided by their beliefs, not entrapped by predetermined plans or defined by their professions. Satcher thus implores us as aspiring servant leaders to

“Find something we care enough about that we’re willing to sacrifice for it.”

[1] “To Heal a Nation” http://articles.latimes.com/1994-03-01/news/vw-28674_1_david-satcher=

[2] Nickens HW, Ready TP, Petersdorf RG. Project 3000 by 2000. Racial and ethnic diversity in U.S. medical schools. N Engl J Med 1994;331:472–6.

[3] Satcher, David, Our Commitment to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001

[4] “Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General.” Surgeongeneral.gov. Office of the Surgeon General, 1999. Web. 4 Nov. 2015


For more from the Voices in Leadership (@VoicesHSPH) series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (@HarvardHSPH), visitwww.hsph.harvard.edu/voices.

Story edited by Esther Velasquez

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