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Service & Impact
January 9, 2024

From Heartbreak To Breakthrough

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Dr. James E.K. Hildreth has impacted countless lives during his 40-plus years in medicine. His groundbreaking immunology research helped pave the way for a lifesaving HIV vaccine, and he has been part of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.

But for all the satisfaction the president and CEO at historic Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, has known for his contributions to the responses to two global pandemics, when asked for a career highlight he tells WayMaker Journal of a letter he received written by a woman on a beach.

“I think she said she was in her mid-40s and she had never been to the beach in over 20 or 30 years, but she was sitting there, very comfortable doing so, because the drug that was based on my discovery had cleared up her psoriasis for the first time ever,” he says. “That was really kind of cool, to know that a discovery I made was the basis for a drug that was changing the lives of people.”

Hildreth’s desire to help improve others’ lives can be traced back to when he was 11 and lost his father, who couldn’t get the health care he needed in rural Arkansas because he was poor and Black. The young boy’s anger was further fueled by the assassination of his hero, Martin Luther King Jr.

“As a researcher, you potentially can impact the lives of literally millions of people.”

Challenged by his mother to channel his grief into something positive, Hildreth decided to put aside childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut to train as a doctor. He now likens his mom’s inspiration to the Sweet Honey in the Rock song “No Mirrors in My Nana’s House,” in which the singer recalls not knowing their “skin was too black” and their “nose was too flat.” “My mother took down those figurative mirrors and made sure that the motivation, drive, imagination—all the things I dreamed about—were not going to be taken from me.”

Hildreth set his sights on Harvard, earning a scholarship there and becoming a Rhodes
Scholar. Later he was named the first Black full-tenured professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

Broader impact

Hildreth’s switch from patient care to backroom research—from carer to curer—came while caring for lab rats as a Harvard medical student.

He was invited to conduct an experiment and was astonished when the results were positive. “I’ll never forget this, that at that moment in time I knew something that had never been known before,” he recalls. “It was just the most amazing feeling to know that you’ve created some new knowledge.

“After that, I thought research was the best thing ever… as a surgeon, you can impact the lives of people very significantly, one person at a time, but as a researcher, you potentially can impact the lives of literally millions of people.”

After distinguished work at Johns Hopkins, Hildreth moved to Meharry—the country’s first Black medical school, founded in 1876 to prepare doctors and dentists to serve under-re- sourced communities—where he became president and CEO in 2015. In 2021, the Nashville Scene named Hildreth Nashvillian of the Year “for shining a light and blazing a trail where there wasn’t one before.”

“I’m still angry that because my father was of African descent his life was not valued the way others were.”

Ongoing health disparities which he says were highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic make Meharry’s vision “as vital and important and needed today as when it was founded,” he says. Among the challenges he points to: higher-than-average incidences of obesity, heart disease and cancer in minority communities.

Better preventive care could catch these problems earlier, prolonging lives and maybe cutting in half the current $4.2 trillion spent annually on health care (“I call it sick care,” he says. “It’s not about health; it’s about treating people who are sick.”)

Under Hildreth’s leadership, the school—with a student body of 1,100—recently launched a physician’s assistant program, to tackle what he says is currently the single most under-represented field in the health world (even though the first PA was a Black former Army medic).

But while better representation in and access to care is crucial, it’s only a partial answer, accounting for around 15% of good health, according to some research, Hildreth notes. Other factors include where you live and work and access to good food.

“There are some ZIP codes a mile or five miles apart, where the life expectancies differ by as much as 20 years,” he says. Addressing that kind of discrepancy is behind Meharry’s plans for a new school of public health, focused on related issues beyond just the medical.

Greater purpose

The sense of injustice that spurred Hildreth’s medical mission remains, he admits. “I’m still angry that because my father was of African descent, his life was not valued the way others were,” he says. He doesn’t dwell on it, “but there’s a kind of energy and drive you can draw from it to make sure that others don’t have to go through what I went through.”

His advice to young men who may feel like he did at their age: “Realize that your value is not determined by what others think of you,” he says. “I always tell groups of children, especially Black children, this world is yours as much as it is anybody else’s. It’s yours to shape, to change, to make better in the same way that others can do, and never let anyone take that right away from you—not your parents, not your teachers, not your peers.”

With that conviction anchored in you, then follow your passion, he adds. “Because if that’s what you do, you won’t have a great job or a great career; you’ll have a great life. Every day you get up and you do something that you love, that drives you, when obstacles come, your ability to work through those will be so much greater than if you’re just doing it as a job. Passion is a powerful thing.”

Passion comes with a price tag, however. While working as an assistant professor, Hildreth was offered a drug company job paying six times what he was making in academia. “But I decided that working for a drug company wasn’t what I wanted to do because they are very prescriptive about what you work on; I wouldn’t have a chance to train students and postdocs,” he says. “I decided my gratification for the work that I do was more important than what I was going to get paid, so I turned down the offer.”

Hildreth’s sense of mission is informed in large measure by his faith. “I’m convinced that what God has for me is for me, and nobody on this earth is going to change that,” he says. “There have certainly been some times in my life when I’m sure divine providence sort of made me do this, B, instead of A, and that turned out to be crucial to moving forward. I always advise people that if you’re a person of faith, don’t be ashamed of that. Don’t try to hide that.”

DR. JAMES HILDRETH: MY WAYMAKER

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. was the first Black faculty member at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and when he got onto the admissions committee he began asking questions about why they didn’t admit Black students. He was told they couldn’t find any who qualified, so Levi said he would. He identified all the students who were Black who scored in the top 5% of the MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] and wrote us all a letter, congratulating us on our performance and asking us to apply to Hopkins.

We all did, and that year 18 Black students matriculated; from zero to 18 in a single year. Every year since that [1979], at least 8% to 10% of the students have been minorities, and it’s all because Levi had the intestinal fortitude to challenge the assumptions, and he imparted that to all of us. If he had not done what he did, the diversity in the most prestigious medical school might still be limited, but because of what he did it changed forever.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.