Matthew Walker rose from humble beginnings to become an internationally recognized pioneer in medicine and surgery. He was also a teacher of doctors and surgeons, a medical college and health care administrator, and an advocate for community-based healthcare to poor, disadvantaged, and underserved populations. His varied achievements affected areas far beyond medicine and healthcare, shaping community development in urban and rural areas of the southern United States and providing models for services to communities in underdeveloped nations.
Matthew Walker was born on December 7, 1906 in the small community of Waterproof, Louisiana, bordering the Mississippi River in the northeastern part of the state. His father, Phillip Walker, was a Pullman porter, and his mother, Rosa Ware Walker, worked as a domestic. The family moved to New Orleans during Matthew's early childhood years, where he received his early educational training in the city's grammar schools.
Walker continued his studies at Gilbert Academy, where he completed high school in 1925. Remaining in the city he attended New Orleans University, where he received his B.A. with honors in 1929. The following year the university merged with Straight College to form Dillard University, making Walker a part of its last graduating class.
New Orleans University had discontinued its medical college in 1911, but it continued to operate the Flint-Goodridge Hospital and nursing school after the merger which created Dillard. Walker was forced to consider other options in order to study for a medical degree, which were limited due to segregation, finances, and other factors, including the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Two historically black colleges/universities (HBCUs) were the primary locations for blacks seeking medical training in the 1930s: Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and Howard University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Walker chose to attend Meharry, a decision which would not only change his life, but also greatly affect the future of the institution.
Walker completed his M.D. with high honors from Meharry in 1934, then he was a resident in surgery and gynecology at the college's George W. Hubbard Hospital from 1935 to 1938 after receiving diplomate status from the National Board of Medical Examiners. His abilities were such that he almost immediately went from being a student to a faculty member, serving as an instructor in anatomy, surgery, gynecology, orthopedics, anesthesia, and EENT (eye, ear, nose, and throat) during the same period.
Despite his scientific background, Walker was a member of the Methodist church, which was another important influence in his life. Both New Orleans University and Meharry were HBCUs that had been supported by the church, and Walker was active in the fellowship at Clark Memorial (United) Methodist Church from his student days at Meharry. He served the church in many capacities and, years later, would become chairman of the church board of trustees. Walker was also known to ask for God's guidance before performing surgery and acknowledged the importance of prayer and faith in the healing process.
Even though he progressed through his medical training in Tennessee at a rapid pace, Walker still found time to return to Louisiana where he married the former Alice Johnson in her hometown of Baldwin, St. Mary Parish, on August 5, 1937. Children soon followed: Charlotte Rose (August 25, 1938), Maxine June (April 2, 1940), Matthew Jr. (June 1,1941), and Daniel Phillip (August 17, 1942). Charlotte was born in Baldwin, while the other three children were born in Nashville at Hubbard Hospital on the Meharry campus.
During 1938 and 1939, Walker left Meharry to become a General Education Board fellow in surgery at Howard, then he returned to become an instructor in physiology and pathology until 1941. By 1942 he had resumed teaching in the areas of surgery and gynecology and was promoted to the rank of associate professor. In 1944 Walker was promoted to full professor and acting chair of the Meharry surgery department. He was named permanent chairman the following year.
Becomes Leader in Profession and Community Service
After receiving diplomate status from the American Board of Surgery in 1946 and having been admitted to fellowship in the International College of Surgeons in 1947, Walker was recognized as one of the outstanding medical practitioners in the nation, regardless of race. He had also become skilled in the development of physicians and surgeons through the resident training program he established at Meharry and was credited with training more African American surgeons than anyone else in the world.
Many out of the hundreds of men who came through his program would break the color barrier in hospitals and medical organizations throughout the South, in other regions of the country, and in international settings. Walker also took the bold step of admitting Dorothy Brown as a resident in surgery in 1949, against the advice of many colleagues. Brown, who graduated from Meharry in 1948, had interned at Harlem Hospital but had been rejected when she chose surgery for her specialty.
- Born in Waterproof, Louisiana on December 7
- Receives B.A. from New Orleans University
- Receives M.D. from Meharry Medical College
- Joins teaching faculty at Meharry
- Marries Alice Johnson in Baldwin, Louisiana on August 5
- Becomes professor and chair of Meharry surgery department
- Launches rural health initiative in Mound Bayou, Mississippi
- Becomes assistant dean of Meharry school of medicine
- Serves as president of National Medical Association
- Integrates local, state, and national American Medica Association
- Secures funding for Mound Bayou and Nashville health centers
- Dedicates Nashville health center named for him on March 7
- Becomes provost for external affairs at Meharry
- Dies in Nashville, Tennessee on July 15
Walker did not agree with the belief that a woman could not handle the rigors of surgery and supported his student. Brown successfully completed five years of surgical residency under Walker at Meharry and became the first African American woman surgeon in the southern United States. She went on to serve as an assistant professor of surgery at the college, chief surgeon at Riverside Hospital (also in Nashville), and followed Walker's own footsteps in later years by also becoming a fellow in the American College of Surgeons. Brown became the second black woman to achieve this distinction. Brown was also the first single adoptive parent in Tennessee and had a political career as a state legislator.
Walker's abilities did not go unnoticed, as he was presented with numerous offers to take his talents elsewhere. While he never left Meharry, Walker became involved in local, regional, and national collaborations with other colleagues through research and public health initiatives. Most notable was the work with the Taborian Hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a rural, all-black community, and the development of neighborhood community health centers for poor and underserved communities in the city of Nashville.
Walker began his relationship with the Mound Bayou community in 1942, when he was recruited by representatives of Taborian to serve as chief surgeon. He declined at that time but suggested other capable surgeons for the position. In 1947 the hospital approached Walker again, but by that time he had already become chair of the Meharry surgery department and had launched his resident training program.
Demonstrating his commitment to both Meharry and the Mound Bayou project, Walker came up with the creative solution to provide medical and surgical services through rotation of students in his training program. He made frequent trips to Mississippi to supervise and consult at Taborian, while balancing his other responsibilities in Nashville. The project also had personal significance for Walker, in that Mississippi represented a symbolic as well as geographical link between his beginnings in Louisiana and his successful life and career in Tennessee.
Walker's plan of action was adopted, and a formal agreement was signed, with the option that other Meharry departments could be included as necessary. Fees for services were paid by Taborian to Meharry, which paid its doctors and students from the allotted funds. Persons in the Mound Bayou community paid small membership fees for outpatient care and up to thirty days of hospitalization if needed, supplemented by community fund drives and county payments. This arrangement became a pioneering example of what would later come to be called health maintenance and managed care organizations (HMOs and MCOs).
In 1948 Walker established the cancer teaching program at Meharry, which led to his becoming an in-demand speaker at public health forums and conferences related to the disease. In 1952 he was promoted to assistant dean of the school of medicine, with administrative responsibilities added to an already demanding professional schedule, work with numerous community organizations, church commitments, and family life with his wife and four children.
Despite his many personal, professional, and community involvements, Walker was also an active member and respected leader of the National Medical Association (NMA). The organization was formed by black doctors attending the 1895 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, the same event which catapulted Booker T. Washington to national prominence. It was fitting that after serving the association in several capacities, Walker was elected national president during its 1953 convention in Nashville, with Meharry as the host institution. The organization's founding president was Robert F. Boyd, a doctor from Nashville and Meharry, and its immediate past president was another Meharry alumnus, A. Porter Davis of Kansas City, Kansas. Walker served in the position from 1954 to 1955, presiding at NMA conventions in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, California.
In 1955 Walker and two Meharry colleagues, E. Perry Crump and Axel E. Hansen, made history when they became the first African American members of the Nashville Academy of Medicine. The local organization, along with other city and county medical societies in Tennessee, had lifted policies of segregation during the previous year. Memberships in these organizations automatically made Walker and other black doctors members of the Tennessee State Medical Association (TSMA) and the American Medical Association (AMA). While historic, it was also ironic in that this recognition came when Walker was president of the NMA, which came into existence because black doctors could not join the AMA.
Walker also focused on the healthcare needs of poor, underserved, and minority communities in the urban setting. Wisely, he used his home city of Nashville as the base for this project, establishing a storefront medical clinic on Jefferson Street in the heart of the black community and close to the Meharry campus. The ease of access to both college and community resources enabled Walker and his colleagues to apply successful strategies used in Mound Bayou and modify as necessary due to the differences of the city environment.
Walker was highly respected and appreciated by his students and colleagues, who were inspired to form the Matthew Walker Surgical Society in 1958. Over seventy physicians who had worked with or been trained by Walker came together to honor their mentor and friend when the society was established and presented him with a silver tray as a token of appreciation.
Through his many relationships and contacts from the local to the national level, Walker and his colleagues were able to secure significant funding from federal agencies in the 1960s to support both the Mound Bayou and Nashville public health projects. In the case of Mound Bayou, a 1966 grant from the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) facilitated the merger of Taborian and Sarah Brown hospitals, creating the Mound Bayou Community Hospital which served portions of five Mississippi counties. A second grant brought Walker and Meharry into collaboration with Tufts University Medical Center in Boston to extend medical services to an even wider region of Mississippi and to include another facility, the Delta Community Hospital.
Even with these successes and additional responsibilities, Walker continued projects and activities on behalf of the primary teaching mission of Meharry. He identified scholarships, fellowships, and other financial assistance for the continued development of medical students and faculty, as well as other research and service projects connected with the medical school.
With the success of the civil rights movement and new access and opportunities in formerly segregated institutions, Walker explored new avenues while remaining committed to his work at Meharry. His expertise led to his appointment to the Board of Hospital Commissioners by the mayor of Nashville in 1961, with oversight of all the city's medical institutions. Walker also gained professional access as a surgeon to all major hospitals in the Nashville area and served as a consultant in surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Walker served on the boards of numerous other organizations and institutions. These included the Citizens Savings Bank of Nashville, the oldest continuously operating black-owned bank in the United States; Universal Life Insurance Company of Memphis; the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce; Scarritt College; and local chapters of the American Cancer Society, National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, American National Red Cross, the National Council on Alcoholism, and United Givers Fund, among others.
By the end of the 1960s Walker had been promoted again by Meharry, to associate dean of the school of medicine, and in 1970 he received an additional appointment as clinical professor of surgery at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Walker received yet another promotion at Meharry in 1973, when he became provost for external affairs at the college.
Walker's outstanding work was recognized on numerous occasions and by a variety of organizations during his life and career, including the NMA, which presented him with its distinguished service award in 1959. Some of his many other honors and awards are a commendation from President Richard Nixon, election to Alpha Omega Alpha honorary medical society, and honoree of the Meharry Alumni Association (1970); senior fellowship in the American Surgical Association (1972); participant in the Cine Clinic of the American College of Surgeons and national Man of the Year from Omega Psi Phi, his college fraternity (1973); inclusion in a video-recorded autobiographical interview series, "Leaders in American Medicine" (1974); and recipient of the Community Service Award from the Congressional Black Caucus (1975).
Walker was most proud when the Meharry Neighborhood Health Center, also established in 1966 with assistance from the OEO, opened for service in 1969. He was deeply touched when it was renamed the Matthew Walker Community Health Center (MWCHC) of Meharry Medical College in his honor when the $1.5 million facility was formally dedicated on March 7, 1970.
The community residents who served on the board of the center insisted to Meharry officials that Walker's vision and hard work in making the facility a reality be permanently acknowledged, with full agreement from his colleagues. Its location in north Nashville was a short distance from Meharry and Fisk University, and accessible from all parts of the city by public transportation and vehicles assigned to the center from the federal government motor pool. The residents also honored Walker by naming the community board the Matthew Walker Health Council.
Final Years and Legacy
Matthew Walker died on July 15, 1978 in Nashville. He had lived to see many changes in his profession and professional community, and he had seen changes in his family as well, including five grandchildren. His firstborn daughter, Charlotte Rose, followed him into the medical profession, and one granddaughter, Candace Koney-Laryea, became an anesthesiologist practicing in New Port Richey, Florida. Students he had trained were practicing medicine in leading medical institutions all over the world, as well as following his lead in providing medical and health services to poor and underserved populations.
After more than thirty years of community service, the MWCHC broke ground on a new $5 million structure in 2003, returning to the Jefferson Street area where Walker and others began the center from the storefront location in the 1950s. Charlotte Rose Walker, a speaker for the groundbreaking ceremonies, commented that her father would have been pleased to see the continued progress of the center.
The new MWCHC building was completed during the same year, bringing the center into the new millennium with state of the art technology as an ongoing testament to the vision and commitment of Dr. Walker. He would have also been pleased to know that the former MWCHC location was purchased by Fisk University in 2005 with plans to renovate the building for use as a community leadership institute, yet another tribute to the life and legacy of Matthew Walker.
Morais, Herbert M. International Library of Afro-American Life and History, Vol. 9: History of the Afro-American in Medicine. Cornwells Heights, Pa.: Publishers Agency, Inc., 1978.
Summerville, James. Educating Black Doctors: A History of Meharry Medical College. University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1983.
Carty, James. "Surgeon Asks God for 'Extra Hunch'." Nashville Tennessean, 6 March 1959.
Churchwell, Robert. "Health Center to Honor Meharry's Dr. Walker." Nashville Banner, 6 March 1970.
"Dr. Walker to Head NMA for 1954–55." Nashville Tennessean, 15 August 1953.
Finch, Cassandra. "Matthew Walker Breaks Ground on New $5 Million Facility." Tennessee Tribune, 23 July 2003.
Reed, W. A. "Dr. Matthew Walker 'Left Much More Than Memories'." Nashville Tennessean, 20 July 1978.
Thomison, John B. "Matthew Walker, M.D., R.I.P." Journal of the Tennessee Medical Association (September 1978): 692-93.
Walker, Matthew. "Mound Bayou: Meharry's Neighbor." Journal of the National Medical Association 65 (July 1973): 309-12.
Meharry Medical College. "Maupin Challenges all Meharrians to Reach for Greatness." http://news.mmc.edu/page.asp?SID=4&Page=100 (Accessed 20 December 2005).
National Medical Association. http://www.nmanet.org/History.htm (Accessed 31 May 2005).
Walker, Charlotte Rose. Telephone conversation with Fletcher Moon, July 11, 2005.
Walker's papers are housed in the archives of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.
Fletcher F. Moon