INDIANAPOLIS- Black Hoosiers have excelled in every field, which includes medicine. They did so especially in eras where Black Americans were not allowed to seek care at most hospitals.
“Health is wealth” is the saying, but it’s hard to be healthy when your doctor isn’t just miles away but states away. That was the reality in America until the mid-20th century– and it’s all tied to race.
“Oh yeah, there’s a lot of racism in medicine,” answered Dr. Earle Robinson Jr., when asked about the topic in the field he’s helped advance over 40 years.
In the early 1900s, there were about 100 or so Black hospitals, the only places Black patients could go. Out of those facilities, half of dozen had residency programs, often the only ones to admit Black doctors, who despite their academic qualifications were not admitted at white residency programs.
“Like in 1937, there were only 18 Black specialists in the whole country. There were 18,000 white specialists— that shows you the difference,” detailed the retired obstetrician-gynecologist (OBGYN), who’s also dedicated his life to researching the racial disparities among medical students and doctors.
Dr. Robinson Junior learned his specialty at one of the nation’s few Black residency programs– Homer G. Phillips Hospital in Saint Louis, Missouri. Bernard Becker Medical Library says Washington University School of Medicine documents estimate about 19,000 patient admissions a year at this Black hospital. Those same records found over 40 years, Homer G. Phillips would have seen more than 600,000 patients, and delivered more than 100,000 babies. Estimates from the documents show 2,000 doctors of various specialties were trained here.
Among them was Dr. Robinson Jr.’s dad. Dr. Earle Robinson, Sr. was one of the hospital’s first 27 medical interns in the 1930s.
“One of the red caps– you know the guy that puts the bag on the train– said, ‘Where you colored guys going?’ They said, ‘We’re going to Kansas City. We just graduated; we’re doctors!’ He (the red cap) said, ‘Well, they just built a colored hospital here, and I don’t think they have no doctors there,’” his son recounted.
And the rest is history! 2 years later, a job ad from an Evansville doctor brought the Robinson family to Indiana. It was a reunion of sorts since Dr. Robinson Sr.’s family lived in Atlantic City, where he met his wife, a teacher. The elder doctor worked at the hotels there as a bellhop to cover his tuition costs. Once admitted to his medical internship in St. Louis, Dr. Robinson Sr. left the family to attend to his studies. Indiana would reunite everyone under one roof.
“Wasn’t no GPS; he had to go by the sun and the stars so that’s what my dad did,” Robinson Jr. said.
And that launches some unique stops in Dr. Robinson Jr.’s own story.
“Well, I’m an interesting person,” he jokes!
If you don’t believe the 88-year-old, you only need to spend a few minutes with him, and hear him reminisce about his memories, something he did for a documentary, Color of Medicine, which tells the story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital and the Robinsons.
“The next thing I know, we were fighting in the club and I have on a cashmere sweater. He grabbed my sweater– I ain’t about to have him tear my cashmere sweater,” he recalled, describing a bar fight in Bloomington after defending a Black classmate he’d just met.
That story ends with NFL legend DJ Dozier plus NBA & IU star Wally Choice jumping in to break it up.
Sprinkled over these 8 decades are also medical achievements. Dr. Robinson Jr. is the first Indiana physician to perform a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, a procedure which offers less recovery time and reduced chances of infection. It’s a gallbladder removal technique, which has now been used in nearly every specialty to maximize a patient’s surgery outcome.
By 1990, the Black physician introduced this minimally invasive surgery to the Hoosier state, after becoming one of only 40 American doctors to learn the technique from German inventors.
“The general surgeon would be doing the operation, but I would be the scissors,” he described. “I knew all the instruments; I knew how they worked.”
The 2nd generation doc says, even then with mountains of knowledge, colleagues often dismissed his leadership and expertise because of his race.
Dr. Robinson Jr. graduated from Indiana University Medical school in the 1950s, just as segregation ended. He left for his residency & internship at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, the same place his father made history. Robinson Jr. came back to Indiana for his first job, and once again, he says peers doubted his skills– this time in the delivery room.
“I examine her. I say, ‘This lady isn’t even dilated yet! What y’all do?’ They say a rectal exam. I said, ‘Rectal exam! They stopped doing rectal exams back in the 1800s.’ I said, ‘We’ve been doing vaginal exams in St. Louis for the last 30 years,’” the OBGYN recalled. Dr. Robinson Jr. was on call and rushed to the delivery room only to find the staff was using outdated procedures.
FOX59 spoke with IU Medical School’s Chief Diversity Officer about how the program’s evolved since Dr. Robinson’s Jr’s time & his experiences with racism.
Dr. Pat Treadwell, a pediatrician, said, “Through the years, we hope that we’ve changed significantly since that time.” She added that the program now focuses on getting students aware about health inequities as opposed to disparities. Through that practice, Dr. Treadwell says future doctors can recognize their role in addressing racism in medicine.
“The things that we’ve tried to put in place are trainings– one training that specifically looks at trying to initiate conversations about racism, and we have a checklist from big IU to look at the anti-race,” the physician described. “It’s basically an anti-racism checklist to look at very different aspects of what’s going on medical school to try to address that.”
While strides are happening now, in Dr. Robinson, Jr’s time, he says addressing racism wasn’t a priority for his peers or the medical system. Racism wouldn’t be the last hurdle the doctor faced, either. Nearly a decade after moving to work at the Indianapolis Veterans Affairs clinic & its psychology ward, his dad and mom were murdered at their 2-story downtown apartment. The murder remains unsolved.
Through it all, Dr. Robinson Jr. pushed forward.
Asked about his biggest achievements, the retired OBGYN reflected, “I say to develop the technology I did– to take medicine from just cutting with a scalpel and sew people up.”
Indiana patients have Dr. Robinson Jr. and Sr. to thank for those medical advancements and many more!