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August 25, 2015

Tribute to United States Congressman Louis Stokes

When I arrived at CWRU in the early 1980s, Lou Stokes was already a living legend. The first black United States Congressman elected from the State of Ohio, ultimately serving fifteen consecutive terms from 1969 to 1999, a World War II Army veteran, noted civil rights lawyer, member of the powerful Appropriation Committee, Chairman of the Congressional Committee to Investigate the Assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, he was renowned for his prowess as a civil rights lawyer, his dignity and courage, his good natured humor and disarming laugh, his steadfast support of federal programs to strengthen biomedical teaching and research, and his passionate commitment to the healthcare needs of all Americans, especially the underserved African-American community.

At local events, I heard Congressman Stokes speak of his childhood in early, inner city Cleveland public housing projects and of how his mother would get him and his brother Carl up and dressed early in the morning to come wait for medical care in the clinics at University Hospitals. He was pleased when I told him that the newly developed Cancer Center was the first entity at University Hospitals of Cleveland and Case Western Reserve University to do away with separate processing for clinic and private patients and that all patients, regardless of color or ability to pay, would be given individual appointments, with their own doctors in the new ambulatory cancer facility in the Bolwell Health Center, and their own personal room, if they needed admission to our cancer center inpatient unit. While we clearly earned our recognition as a National Cancer Institute-designated Clinical and now, Comprehensive Cancer Center, we certainly benefitted from and appreciated his advocacy.

Through the Black Congressional Caucus, Lou was a driving force for creation of the National Center for Minority Health, later established as The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. In addition to his passionate support for improving the quantity and quality of minority health care, he was a staunch advocate to ensure that the NIMHHD supported rigorous scientific research to understand and improve the diseases that led to disparities. One of the most recent beneficiaries of this effort is Cynthia Owusu, MD, MS, Director of the Seidman Cancer Center Senior Adult Oncology Clinic, who was just awarded a five-year NIMHHD grant to study Reducing Functional Health Disparities Among Older Breast Cancer Survivors. 

Although he had a steadfast commitment to improving healthcare for the underserved, Lou’s advocacy for health science research extended far beyond that group. In follow-up to a meeting with Pierluigi Gambetti, MD, University Pathologists of Cleveland and Professor of Pathology at the CWRU School of Medicine, Lou became a key advocate to establish a National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center, which was subsequently awarded and established at CWRU where it still serves as a national resource. 

On occasion I have had the opportunity to sit next to Congressman Stokes on the stage facing our medical student graduating class. At one of these exercises, Lou leaned over to point out that the skin color of the graduating class looked rather pale. I was really pleased later in 2002, when he was our School of Medicine Commencement Speaker, he complimented me on our successful efforts at CWRU to improve the complexion of the graduating medical students.

Lou’s inspirational potential was clearly recognized early on by our medical students. Some of our students, now alumni, including Doris Evans, MD, who ultimately became a prominent Cleveland area pediatrician and community activist, and David Satcher, MD, PhD, who ultimately became United States Surgeon General, are proud of the frequent times they disappeared early from class to work on the first campaign to elect Louis Stokes to Congress. Lou’s unwavering support for Cleveland healthcare and the CWRU School of Medicine have been recognized by naming the Louis Stokes Health Sciences Center at the School of Medicine and the Louis Stokes Cleveland Veterans Administration Medical Center. His advocacy and support for biomedical science was recognized at the national level by dedication of an entire, six-floor, 186,000 net square feet research building at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, as the Louis Stokes Research Building, the first such building named for an African-American. At the building’s dedication, which I was honored to attend with Dr. Gambetti, both Lou Stokes and his wife Jay indicated how overwhelmed they were that a boy who grew up in the Cleveland projects had come to have a research building dedicated to him at the National Institutes of Health, the greatest research institute in the world. At that building dedication in 2001, he expressed his hope that “out of that building will come the research to eliminate disparities, prolong life and benefit all mankind.” 

The last time I sat with the Congressman was in April 2015 at a small dinner meeting of the Patient Advocacy Board for the National Cancer Institute-funded Gastro Intestinal Malignancy Specialized Program on Research Excellence (GI-SPORE) led by Sanford Markowitz, MD, PhD, Markowitz-Ingalls Professor of Cancer Genetics at CWRU School of Medicine. Lou had come to the meeting with his long-time friend and colleague, Edgar Jackson, Jr., MD, Chief of Staff Emeritus, and Senior Advisor to the President and CEO of University Hospitals Case Medical Center, to hear Sandy and Joe Willis, MD, Professor of Pathology at CWRU School of Medicine, describe their recent seminal discovery of unique driver genes that promote colon cancer in African-Americans, genes that may contribute to disparities In this disease and, even more importantly, may provide unique targets for diagnosis and treatment of patients with these genetic mutations. Lou was excited by the discoveries and proud that they were made here at CWRU and UHCMC, organizations for which both he and United States Representative Marcia Fudge had consistently advocated. He instantly grasped the scientific impact of the new discovery, raised critical scientific questions, including whether these mutations were specific characteristics of Cleveland Blacks or would be found on a national basis, and whether or not they could be found in Africa. He counseled us on the importance and approach for getting this news out to the African-American community, and then, punctuated by his disarming laugh, he pointed out the pale complexion of most of the physicians and scientists in the room. He urged us to actively engage in training African-American physicians and investigators to build on this important work and bring it to the patients who need it most. The rarity of minority physicians and specialists is an important unmet need recognized by all in the GI SPORE and the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, and especially by Cancer Center Director, Stanton Gerson, MD, Shiverick-Tripp Professor of Hematologic Oncology, who is currently leading an institutional effort to recruit a new director for our community oncology program. 

When the news was released that he had been diagnosed with metastatic lung and brain cancer, I called and spoke with Lou and his wife to provide my unsolicited recommendations for maintaining his nutrition and strength. He graciously described to me his daily walk routine, promised to keep it up and reminded me to keep working on the complexion issue.

We are all the beneficiaries of this great man; his message is clear and the work must continue. 

Guest Author

Nathan A. Berger, MD
Distinguished University Professor
Hanna-Payne Professor of Experimental Medicine
Professor of Medicine, Biochemistry, Oncology and Genetics
Director, Center for Science, Health and Society
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine