A Physician's Work Promoting Equity in Medicine

For the entire month of February, NBC will showcase essays about Black Americans who pioneered change in United States history during the Civil Rights Movement that led to nationwide desegregation. Pioneers include those who led local efforts to desegregate schools, professionals who forged ahead to become luminaries within their industries, and advocates who stoked the wave of change head-on in the nation's bid for racial justice and equality.

Dr. Edward S. Cooper, the 1st Black President of the American Heart Association

I entered the Philadelphia General Hospital as an intern [and] I was the only person of color there out of my intern class. Each day, two or three stroke cases would come in, very severe. Half of them were in blacks and half were fatal.

Dr. Edward S. Cooper

When cardiologist Edward S. Cooper recalls his patient roster of more than four decades, he won’t readily share that his patients included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reginald Lewis.

Notables, and notoriety, are of no consequence to his fixed priorities: advance medical science, provide compassion to patients, and continue his family’s legacy in medicine.

At 94, Dr. Cooper is an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the American Heart Association. When asked about his life, he will start at the beginning. Growing up in Columbia, S.C., among a family of physicians and dentists, Cooper recalls knowing very early that he, too, would become a doctor.

When Cooper was 7, his younger brother was treated at home for scarlet fever. The prominent local pediatrician, who was white, made a comment that would leave an indelible impression. “He smiled at me and patted me on the head,” Cooper recalls, “and said, ‘You’re going to be a pediatrician someday.’”

As Cooper advanced through his primary and secondary education with top marks, that interaction carried lasting influence: “I could visualize myself fitting into that core of professionals that were helping people. … I liked science. I was good at science. … We had so few [doctors], and the need was so great. … During the Depression, people would pull out their [own] teeth, but if they had a stroke or heart attack … they had to see the doctor.”

Dr. Edward S. Cooper, top right, poses with his family of physicians.
Dr. Edward S. Cooper, top right, poses with his family of physicians.

At age 15, his passion for science, combined with his competitive academic record, would admit Cooper to Lincoln University and later Meharry Medical College — at a time when many of his classmates were drafted to fight in World War II.

“Pearl Harbor happened right in the middle of my high school senior year,” Cooper recounts. “So, everything changed. … I did get a deferment, because they said that they needed doctors more than they needed foot soldiers. … I agreed. I went to Meharry.”

While in medical school, Cooper was instructed by a supportive faculty — mainly Black professors, along with white professors from nearby Vanderbilt University. The environment at Meharry encouraged students of all backgrounds to push for academic excellence. But while Cooper did not encounter discrimination on campus, he soon discovered an unmistakable disparity in patient death rates at medical facilities.

Dr. Edward S. Cooper, Martin Luther King Jr.'s former physician, talks about growing up under his family's medical legacy.

“I entered the Philadelphia General Hospital as an intern [and] I was the only person of color there out of my intern class,” Cooper recollects. “Each day, two or three stroke cases would come in, very severe. Half of them were in blacks and half were fatal. … I was just struck by it because stroke was in the back of the textbook, in the back of the receiving ward, in the back of the hospital. There was nothing you could do.”

Cooper, although troubled by this observation, was not immediately compelled to specialize in stroke. When his own health failed, his mind and life’s work would be forever transformed.

While an intern, Cooper developed a 104-degree fever and was diagnosed with pneumonia. Cooper’s emotions from that ordeal reverberate as strongly today as they did more than 70 years ago: “I was dreaming of coffins at night. My mother came up, spent two or three weeks. … One night I just felt so terrible, and could hardly breathe. … I said, ‘Good Lord, if you get me through this, I’ll be good. And I promise I’ll do something about this stroke problem.’”

An antibiotic cured Cooper of his illness. He later reflected, “That experience taught me what patients really want: sympathy, tenderness and hope.” Cooper made good on his promise to God, and set off on a career that dramatically advanced stroke awareness, prevention and treatment.

Over multiple decades, Cooper built a network of medical professionals, and a reputation for patient care, both in stroke and heart health, and in general medicine. Such was the case that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought out Cooper and Dr. Harold Pierce for treatment of a keloid after he was stabbed. Cooper recalls treating Dr. King: “For four days — EKGs, blood studies, upper GI series — the whole works. … He was in perfect health.

“The thing that most impressed me about [King] was his eye contact — it was riveting. I mean, he’d look at you as if he was looking right to the back of your head. I mean, really unusual.”

But what happened next stands out all the more in Cooper’s memory. “One day, [King] said, ‘Harry Belafonte is going to be coming down tomorrow for a meeting. … So, I wonder if you could arrange for somebody to meet and bring him to the room.’” Cooper obliged, and personally escorted Belafonte into and out of the building through a concealed entrance.

Years later, Belafonte and Cooper reminisced about their shared experience, with Belafonte reportedly recounting, "'I remember very well. When a huge crowd of [Belafonte] fans rapidly accumulated, Doc Cooper was like a cat on a hot tin roof. And I say, pretty skittish.'"

Dr. Cooper recalls one life-threatening experience during his internship at the Philadelphia General Hospital that shaped his approach to patient care and medicinal treatment.

While Cooper was trusted by many civil rights icons of the 1960s, he does not self-identify as an activist. But his work reflects Cooper as a medical change agent. He is credited with groundbreaking research on stroke remedies and sealing health gaps for Black Americans, specifically as it relates to stroke treatment and education.

“We’ve got to get people to understand how to prevent disease, so often by lifestyle changes,” explains Cooper. He urges that people quit smoking and work to combat the obesity epidemic, “which is driving so much cardiovascular disease now.”

Cooper continues, “We had a 50 percent decline in stroke mortality after stroke became more visible. People understood how to take care and how to prevent it. … It’s still falling but it’s leveling off now because … they’re getting diabetes and high blood pressure and all as a result of the obesity.”

And as the recent plateauing among the general population persists, one group central to Cooper’s lifetime of work is disproportionately impacted. He explains, “Black women are getting more strokes now than before. … That still leaves a lot to be done.”

Because of his commitment to tackling strokes and cardiovascular health, untold numbers of Americans have been spared premature death. No acknowledgement of Cooper’s contributions to medicine stands out more than being named the first Black president of the American Heart Association (AHA) in 1992. With his trademark modesty, Cooper’s reaction to the news of his appointment was one of shock: “I was absolutely dumbfounded. … I just could not understand it. But it happened.”

Cooper greets President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at an event establishing, by presidential proclamation, February as American Heart Month.
Dr. Cooper greets President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at an event establishing, by presidential proclamation, February as American Heart Month.

Cooper’s tenure at the AHA was marked by an increasing emphasis on fighting strokes, paving the way for what later became a new division at the organization: the American Stroke Association. He partnered with the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively, to secure clearer food labeling and proclaim February as American Heart Month.

And, he worked to recruit greater numbers of minorities in medicine, a responsibility Cooper keenly understands, having benefited from a long family history of physicians and dedicated professors — of all shades — who invested in him throughout his early career. Cooper shares great hope for the next generation of doctors, and wants young people to remember three simple rules that helped chart his own success: “Stay in school, study hard and strive for excellence.” He remains most proud of his own family.

Dr. Edward S. Cooper talks about his own medical legacy in the field of stroke research and treatment, and what more needs to be done to lessen the health gap for Black Americans.

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments, online and on Xfinity On Demand.

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