The honorary plaques that had covered the walls of the office of the founding director of Howard University's Center for Sickle Cell Disease are all packed away now, leaving only their shadowy outlines on the wood paneling.
Yet Roland B. Scott, the slightly stooped, bespectacled man with sparse gray hair who presided at this research and treatment facility for all of its 18 years, speaks of his retirement after more than 50 years at Howard with professorial detachment.
"There are psychological and sociological implications, no question about it," he muses.
Founding the center and working with thousands of people with the inherited blood disorder that weakens and exhausts its victims has been his most noted life's work. But it was also just part of a multifaceted career that won Scott national acclaim as a pediatrician, pioneering researcher and educator at Howard University's College of Medicine.
He is, in the words of a former student, "an old-time role model."
Physicians around the country and world "know Howard University by Dr. Scott," said Angella Ferguson, a pediatrician who studied under him and is the university's associate vice president for health affairs.
Not surprisingly, Scott's announced retirement also will not mean the end of his association with the university, even though at 81 he is at least 16 years older than most people who call it quits and mean it. From a new campus office, he will work two days a week raising funds for the center and the College of Medicine.
"Medicine has been very kind to me," he said. "I want to return to medicine whatever I can."
The center can also use his help. Two years ago it lost out in competition for federal grants from the National Institutes of Health and has had to reduce its 40-person staff and $1 million budget by 25 percent apiece. Oswaldo Castro, the center's new director, said some long-term research projects at the center were postponed because of the cutbacks.
Scott's ties to Howard reach back more than 60 years, although ironically it was not his first choice as an undergraduate. After his high school years in Missouri, he had wanted to attend the University of Chicago until his mother convinced him that a predominantly black college would provide a more comfortable social and educational environment.
He focused his studies on medicine, but Scott said he knew he wanted to teach.
"I was very much impressed by my teachers," he said. "To be a teacher, you have to really want to do it."
After postgraduate medical training in Chicago, Scott returned to Howard in 1939 to teach in the emerging field of pediatrics. That year he became the first black physician in the country to pass the American Board of Pediatrics' examination. Later, he was the first black physician admitted to the prestigious American Pediatriac Society and the Society for Pediatric Research.
In his practice, Scott said he often saw black children hospitalized with serious infections such as pneumonia or meningitis. He realized that what really made some of them so sick was sickle cell disease.
"It was neglected," Scott said of the disease. "There was nothing being done."
An inherited disease found primarily, but not exclusively among blacks, sickle cell is believed to have originated in Africa as a natural form of resistance to malaria. People with the disorder, which must be passed on by both parents, have gene abnormalities that cause their red blood cells, normally round, to become long and skinny. The sickle-shaped cells can't carry as much oxygen as round ones, circulate poorly and die quicker than they can be replaced.
The result: people with the disorder are chronically tired, get infections frequently and develop painful joints, jaundice and swelling of the hands and feet. Occasionally, they die from infection or drastically reduced circulation. An estimated 50,000 Americans have the disease, with the rate of incidence for U.S. blacks about 1 in 600.
Nearly 500 are treated each year at the Howard center, officials there said. But the number of D.C. residents afflicted could be double that.
Today, the disease's complications can be controlled with antibiotics and blood transfusions, but there is still no cure. But before Scott began his research, treatment was minimal and, without antibiotics, often led to death. "Black people were given very little hope," he said.
Starting in the 1940s and 1950s, Scott began systematically cataloguing the symptoms, complications and known clinical treatments of the disorder. No federal grants existed back then, so he looked to black social organizations and community groups, who funded his work with dances and fashion shows.
A man of high energy and commitment, he did all this in addition to his beloved teaching. He organized Howard's department of pediatrics in 1949 and chaired it until 1973, teaching thousands of students, including some top administrators at Howard today. At the same time, he was chief of pediatrics at the old Freedmen's Hospital, now Howard University Hospital.
"His love for pediatrics came out in his lectures," said Ferguson, who assisted Scott in his research. "He was one of the influences that inspired me to go into pediatrics."
His prolific writings on sickle cell drew needed attention to the disorder, and, more importantly, underscored the federal government's neglect of it.
In 1971, Congress passed the Sickle Cell Control Act, which provided grants to establish 10 sickle cell outreach and research centers around the country. Howard University was named one of the centers and Scott was charged with developing it.
He didn't stop there. Over the opposition of many who feared the information could stigmatize and raise questions about paternity, he prodded the D.C. government to require Washington hospitals to offer screening of newborns for sickle cell disease. He maintained that identifying the disease early could help direct care and prevent life-threatening infections in newborns. The law was passed in 1986.
Scott has collected dozens of accolades for his work, including in 1985 the Jacobi Award, given by the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics for enduring contributions to medicine.
Scott's three grown children tell their widowed father he's earned his retirement, but he resists the idea of setting work aside even now.
"You should remain active," he said, "and contribute to the community to the extent you can. That's my philosophy."
Houston, April 18, 1909.
B.S., Howard University, 1931.
M.D., Howard University, 1934.
1939-90: Professor and lecturer in pediatrics, Howard University College of Medicine.
1949-73: Chairman, Department of Pediatrics, Howard University.
1947-73: Chief pediatrician, Freedmen's Hospital, Washington, D.C.
1971-90: Director, Center for Sickle Cell Disease, Howard University.
1973: Roland B. Scott Award established at Howard University's College of Medicine for student excellence in pediatrics.
1980 and 1982: Awards by the National Sickle Cell Disease Program of the National Institutes of Health.
1985: Jacobi Award, American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.