Mary Harper; Leader in Minority Health

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 5, 2006

Mary Starke Harper, 86, who began her 65-year medical career as a nurse in Alabama caring for an aging George Washington Carver and who became one of the nation's leading advocates for improving health care for minorities, the elderly and the mentally ill, died July 27 of cancer at her home in Columbus, Ga. She lived in Washington until 1998.

Dr. Harper spent many years as a nurse in veterans hospitals, then became a policymaker with the National Institutes of Health and an adviser to four presidents. She also helped begin an NIH program that has trained thousands of minority scientists and health-care workers.

"She was the first to shine a light on the health disparities of ethnic and racial minorities and the fact that we weren't doing a good job with elderly people," said Ora Lea Strickland, a professor of nursing at Emory University in Atlanta. "She has had an indelible effect on health care and research in this nation, not only for ethnic and racial minorities, but for everyone."

Dr. Harper was the last surviving participant in the notorious Tuskegee syphilis project, a U.S. Public Health Service study in which black men in Macon County, Ala., were deliberately left untreated to determine the long-term effects of the often fatal venereal disease. Years later, after a conscience-stricken Dr. Harper understood her unwitting role in the project, she vowed to change the way the government conducted studies on people.

In 1972, the extent of federal duplicity in the Tuskegee project was revealed in newspaper accounts, and in 1997 President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology for the 40-year experiment. Half of the 400 men in the study were left untreated, and many of them died. Forty women contracted the disease from the study's subjects, and 19 children were born with syphilis.

As a young nurse in the early 1940s, Dr. Harper had given injections -- either medicine or a placebo, depending on the subject -- but she was not told about the full essence of the study or that many men were denied treatment.

"I was very angry that they had me, a black person, doing something bad to black men," she said in 2003. "It was just a horrible feeling. Sometimes, after I saw one of them, I'd bake them a sweet potato pie. I just felt like I had to do something."

Dr. Harper was born in the small Alabama settlement of Fort Mitchell and grew up in nearby Phenix City. As a girl, she raised white mice, which she sold to hospitals and laboratories.

When her businessman father, whom she credited for her drive, died while she was a student at Tuskegee University in Alabama, she switched her studies from business to nursing. She became the private nurse to Carver, the Tuskegee scientist who devised countless uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and other plants and who died in 1943.

"He impressed on her the importance of not using her race as a crutch for not succeeding," Strickland said.

After she received a nursing diploma in 1941, Dr. Harper worked in Alabama for a few years, then enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where she received a bachelor's degree in 1950 and a master's degree in nursing in 1952. She returned to Tuskegee as nursing director of the veterans hospital, then moved to veterans hospitals in Michigan and New York, combining clinical work with research on mental illness and other topics. In 1962, she received a dual doctorate in psychology and sociology from St. Louis University.

After joining the National Institute of Mental Health in 1972, Dr. Harper used her painful experience with the Tuskegee project to become the primary force in organizing NIH's minority fellowship program. In the past 33 years, it has educated more than 10,000 scientists, doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers and other health professionals.

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