Op-Ed: Dr. Paul B. Cornely, M.D., Dr.PH: A pioneering Black preventionist, advocate and Wolverine

Wednesday, July 1, 2020 - 3:20pm

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We live in both uncertain and unprecedented times. The pandemic’s inequitable and tragic impact on communities of color (re)exposed the systemic structures of oppression white Americans have come to rely upon for their comfort, but the tinderbox of racial and political injustice at the hands of this country’s “protectors” has mixed with the pandemic to become inextinguishable. The last five months have left many of us wishing for wise, dynamic and habile leadership, from medical to political. Dr. Anthony Fauci has been America’s foil for President Donald Trump’s lack of leadership and beneficence, but is more than one popular national spokesperson for the medical and public health communities that much to ask for? In my pining for competent national governance back in late April and May, I came upon the name of a Wolverine this generation’s public health — from racial to molecular — sorely missed out on. His name was Dr. Paul Bertau Cornely, M.D., Dr.PH (Doctor of Public Health). Born in March of 1906 in the French West Indies but raised in Detroit, Mich., Dr. Cornely would go on to lead a very long life of nearly innumerable firsts.

Before I shine the spotlight on Dr. Cornely, I want to remind readers of the historical tendency of both the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Medical School to break social, cultural and scientific barriers in medicine. This July marks 150 years since the Medical School became the first in the nation to accept women for medical training. During 1869 to 1870, Michigan became the first academic medical center in the United States, combining medical training, medical practice and research for the first time. Dr. Alice Hamilton, the mother of industrial toxicology, occupational medicine and first female faculty member of Harvard, graduated in 1893 from the University of Michigan’s Medical School. In 1952, three years before Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. would announce on the steps of Rackham Auditorium that his student Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was “safe, effective and potent,” Dr. Albert Wheeler became the first Black man to join Michigan as a tenure-track faculty member. The 1980s would witness Dr. Alexa Canady begin her career as America’s first Black female neurosurgeon. In 1990, Dr. Antonia Novello would be appointed the first female (and Hispanic) Surgeon General of the United States.

In addition to the progress, honor and responsibility many of the aforementioned men and women have brought to the University, it is Dr. Cornely’s legacy that has been at the forefront of my mind recently. His story is made even brighter by the historical context it has its roots in. 75 percent of his undergraduate education (B.A., 1928) at Michigan was presided over by none other than Clarence Cook (C.C.) Little, a disgusting scientific-racist, eugenicist, xenophobe, carcinogen-denying excuse of a man who, until much too recently, had his name memorialized on a University building and residence hall. 

Although just one of Dr. Cornely’s years of medical education from the University was spent under the Little presidency, it would not be difficult to argue that some of his later fierce advocacy for national healthcare desegregation was the result of segregated medical education. By the time Dr. Cornely graduated from the University's School of Public Health with his doctorate of public health in 1934 — making history as the first Black American to do so — I am sure the fiery acumen he would come to be known for was far developed beyond his peers.

Dr. Cornely’s last educational stop was at Lincoln Hospital in Durham, N.C., where he would complete his internship. It is unclear what his official medical specialty was or when he was board-certified, but, as Dr. Cornely had been trained in public health and was subsequently appointed assistant professor of preventive medicine and public health at Howard University, I believe it safe to say he was a preventionist. Preventive medicine specialists are physicians who have undergone residency training in preventive medicine. Furthermore, the American Board of Preventive Medicine — the American Medical Association-recognized accrediting body for preventionists — did not come into existence until 1948.

By the time Dr. Cornely was appointed as the chair of the growing Department of Bacteriology, Preventive Medicine and Public Health at Howard in 1942, he had been responsible for creating the public health curriculum all Howard trainees took their sophomore year. By 1947, he was the medical director of the bustling Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital), one of just three remaining traditionally Black medical hospitals. Dr. Cornely’s passions for equitable training opportunities for Black physicians, healthcare access for minority populations and racial equality are as relevant now as they were during the Civil Rights Era. He was crucial to the movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., serving as the infamous 1963 March on Washington’s medical coordinator.

In 1970, Dr. Cornely was the first African-American man to be elected as president of the American Public Health Association — the professional body of American public health practitioners. Although he is listed as hailing from Washington, D.C., on the APHA website, Dr. Cornely was the fifth APHA president from Michigan (the first trained in Ann Arbor). Dr. Henry F. Vaughan, Dr.PH. — the son of Victor C. Vaughan who was a former dean of the Michigan Medical School and whose passion for eugenics has yet to be addressed by the University — was the third. To Dr. Cornely, public health was inseparable from social justice, which is apparent in the presidential address he titled “The Hidden Enemies of Health and the American Public Health Association.” He first addressed what he called “the national addiction to the abundant life;” the symptoms of which have always been intense consumerism and commodification. 

As a good physician, Dr. Cornely was careful to include all possible conditions in his differential diagnoses. The men in the room, proxies for the medical establishment at the time, seemed to have forgotten the part of the oath they took at the outset of their training — to remember their immense social privilege when those without any needed their help. Dr. Cornely lambasted the health and welfare institutions for its tendency to partake in these political processes to “achieve its ends which quite often have not been in the interest of the American public.” 

Privilege is as seductive now as it was in 1970. Especially white privilege. Furthermore, Dr. Cornely’s indictments of American healthcare and public health institutions in that era would be just as applicable today. Sagging under the weight of a pandemic, the pestilence of American exceptionalism ingrained in those establishments — as deeply as they are in law enforcement and government — has lost its ability to survive on whiteness. The blood-colored bow used by its protectors to keep empty promises, blind eyes, hushed voices and tokenism all wrapped up in a pretty box called white privilege — recognized by Dr. Cornely over 50 years ago — is worn out and hanging on by a thread.

I would argue that it is Dr. Cornely’s legacy that we as American and global citizens should be looking to for guidance and hope. I do not mean to knock the brave, honest, hard-working men and women who are fighting to right this Trump-colored pandemic-filled ship called the United States. I just mean that, perhaps if Dr. Cornely were alive today, we would not be seeing studies like the following published in the New England Journal of Medicine: On May 27, physician-scientists from Louisiana published results from a large retrospective cohort study on hospital-based data in Southeast Louisiana which showed 76.9 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations were of Black individuals. Only 32.8 percent of Louisiana citizens are Black. America has not changed one bit 50 years later.

Dr. Paul B. Cornely has a postdoctoral fellowship named in his honor at the School of Public Health, but his legacy is nowhere to be found among the courses I have taken so far or structures I take them in. In honor of Dr. Cornely and the Black Lives Matter movement, leaders of the groups Public Health Students of African Descent and Sexual and Gender Diversity in Public Health are petitioning to have the School of Public Health's only community gathering space named The Paul B. Cornely Room. Please feel free to join us in our push and even more so to email us the stories of the Wolverine public health or medical way-makers who inspire you.

Lastly, there is something easy (but consequential) you could do right now: write to Dr. F. DuBois Bowman — the current Dean of the School of Public Health — and ask that Victor Vaughan’s historical connections to the Medical School and School of Public Health be publicly reviewed. C.C. Little had his reckoning, so why hasn’t Vaughan? Lipstick can do only so much for a pig.

Joshua E. Tucker (author) (he/him/his) is a second-year graduate student in Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health and the incoming President of Sexual and Gender Diversity in Public Health. He can be reached at tuckjosh@umich.edu. Additionally, Kyra Freeman, a second-year graduate student in Health Management and Policy at the School of Public Health and the incoming President of Public Health Students of African Descent, contributed supplementary research and review for this piece. She can be reached at kkfree@umich.edu.