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Bristow, Lonnie 1930—

Lonnie Bristow 1930


At a Glance


Dr. Lonnie Bristow has long been an advocate for patients and doctors alike, and, on June 21, 1995, he prepared to use his skills and energy to lead the largest society of physicians in the UnitedStates-the 300,000-member American Medical Association (AMA). On that day, Bristow made history by becoming the first African American to hold the top position in the asso-ciations 148-year history.

Bristows interest in medicine dates from his youth. He was bom and raised in the Harlem borough of New York City, where his father was a Baptist minister and his mother a nurse at Sydenham Hospital. As a teenager Bristow regularly met his mother at the hospital emergency room to walk home with her. One of the things that most impressed me in those visits was the realization that many cultures were represented on the staff, Bristow recalled in the American Medical News. That had a powerful impact on me, seeing several races and several ethnic cultures linked by the common goal of providing compassionate care to patients. It was one of the reasons 1 chose the medical profession.

At age 16 Bristow enrolled at Morehouse College, apredominantly black institution in Atlanta, where, in addition to his studies, he played quarterback for the football team. Academic success eluded him, however, and he quit school after two years. Following a stint in the U.S. Navy, a more mature Bristow returned to New York City to earn his bachelors degree from the City College in 1953. Four years later he received his medical degree from the New York University College of Medicine . He interned in a hospital in San Francisco and fulfilled his residency requirements in New York City and San Francisco hospitals. Since 1964, he has practiced medicine as an internist with a subspecialty in occupational medicine in San Pablo, California, a small city east of San Francisco.

Shortly after entering private practice, Bristow became actively involved in organized medicine. It doesnt take you long after you get out of a medical training program to realize that taking care of people one at a time is fine, but its nice if you can take care of a whole community and do something that affects a whole lot of people, Bristow explained to Aura Bland of California Physician. Over the years, Bristow has been active with a number of state and national professional organizations,

At a Glance

Bom April 6, 1930, in New York, NY; son of Lonnie Harlis {a Baptist minister) and Vivian (a nurse; maiden name, Wines) Bristow. Married Margaret Jeter, June 1, 1957 (divorced August, 1961); married Marilyn Hingslage (a nurse), October 18, 1961; children: Mary (from first marriage), Robert and Elizabeth (from second marriage). Education: City College of New York, B.S., 1953; New York University, M.D 1957.

Private practice in internal medicine, San Pablo, CA, 1964-; Brookside Hosp., San Pablo, staffer; CA. Dept of Health Care in Prisons, Sacramento, con-sultant, 197677; Advisory Committee on Sickle Cell Disease, California State Dept. of Health Services, member, 197779; American Medical Assn., alternate delegate, 1978, delegate, 1979, board of trust-ees, 198590, exec, committee, 199093, chair of board of trustees, 1993*94, pres.-elect, 1994, became pres., 1995. Graduate Med. Education State Advisory Committee for Californias Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, member, 198084; Physician Discussion Group on Physician Reimbursement, appointed mem., 1983285; Executive Committee of FORUM for Med. Affairs, 198487, 199192; National Visiting Committee, City Univ. of New York Med. School, 1986-; Interagency Committee on Smoking and Health of the Centers for Disease Control, appointed member, 198794; Centers for Disease Control Aduisory Committee on the Prevention of HIV Infection, appointed member, 198993; Quadrennial Advisory Council on Social Security, appointed member, 198993.

Awards: Award of Excellence, California Medical Action Committee, 1976; elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, 1977; Contra Costa County Humanitarian of the Year award, Contra Costa County Board of Supervi-sors, 1989; Californias Most Distinguished Internist Award, California Society of Internal Medicine, 1990. Received honorary doctorates from Morehouse College School of Med,, 1994, Wayne State University School of Med., 1995, and the City College of New York, 1995.

Member: American Medical Assn., American College of Physicians, Natl. Medical Veterans Soc, Federated Council on Internal Medicine, Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, California Medical Assn., California Society of Internal Medicine, East Bay Society of Internal Medicine, Alameda-Contra Costa Mecflcal Assn.

Addresses: Home 3324 Ptarmigan Dr., Apt. 3B, Walnut Creek, CA 943953157. Office2023 Vale Rd., San Pablo, CA 948063834.

often serving in leadership roles. He has also lectured widely and published often in professional journals, including the Internist and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Bristows involvement with the American Medical Association has a long history. As a model team player he rose rapidly through the organizations ranks. After serving as an alternate delegate to the association in 1978, he became a full delegate the following year. In 1985, he became the first African American to serve on the board of trustees, and eight years later he became the first black chair of the board. Bristows election to the top spot in the AMA seemed inevitable to many. Association members and nonmembers alike celebrated Bristows election as a symbol of the AMAs new stance--a stark contrast to its hundred-year history of excluding blacks.

While pleased, Bristow did not dwell on the meaning of his election. The significance is that it means America is moving forward, Bristow noted in the Detroit Free Press. I just wish the country would reach the point where [race is] no longer important. He also remarked in Jet, I think my being elected shows it is possible to accomplish things through hard work and education.

The stated goals of the AMA are to inform its members of government decisions that affect health care and to represent the membership before Congress. In addition, the organization informs the public on medical issues. However, over the decades the AMA has earned the reputation as a self-serving organization, one that protects the level of physicians salaries rather than safeguarding the public. Bristow hoped to change this negative perception, beginning with better communication. We need some type of two-way communication, a way for the public to tell us what it thinks about what were doing, Bristow explained to a Jet reporter. Id like to know about the publics hopes, desires, and fears regarding health care. Bristow enthused to Adams in the Detroit Free Press, Id love to see the day come when the people of America consider the AMA as their AMA.

Bristow has been instrumental in the AMAs long-term strategic planning. He has attempted to make the organization more responsive to the needs of Americans. As the board of trustees chair in 1993 and 1994, he worked to reform Medicare by promoting the AMAs health agenda: universal coverage, greater physician involvement, and antitrust relief. Bristow is concerned about the role of business in health care. We now have health care being controlled by MBAs [persons with a masters degree in business administration] rather than by physicians committed to the Hippocratic oath [a pledge to a code of ethics taken by those about to begin medical practice], Bristow told Los Angeles Times reporter Bettijane Levine. And once health care becomes corporatized, and it has, and once it goes on the open stock market, then its major commitment is to Wall Street and the stockholders to maximize profits, rather than to give the best possible patient care. Bristow added, Business principles are introduced that unfortunately put patient care second to corporate profits.

Hoping to rally physicians to the AMA, whose membership fell to 40 percent of doctors from 70 percent in the 1970s, in 1994 Bristow criss-crossed the country, giving speeches on a variety of medical issues. Another long-term goal of the AMA under Bristow has been to promote high ethical standards. Bristow told McCormick of the need for such standards, At least one-fourth of U.S. medical schools have no formal courses in medical ethics. . . . No wonder so many physicians are having a hard time deciding what is right and what is wrong. Bristow hoped to make an impact by promoting the AMA Code of Professional Ethics, requiring ethics courses at medical schools and including ethics questions on licensing exams.

When Bristow became more involved in policy making and reform, he cut back his office hours to one day per week. It has been very rewarding to be a part of organized medicine, Bristow told Bland. You have the opportunity to promote your ideas and concepts and see if your peers accept them. When they become a policy of the organization and ultimately of the profession, its very exciting.


American Medical News, June 5, 1995, p. 7 .

Black Enterprise, October 1994, p. 18.

Boston Globe, June 13, 1994, p. 7.

California Physician, July 1994, pp. 2225 .

Chicago Defender, June 22, 1995, p. 1.

Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1995, p. 5A.

Jet, June 27, 1994, p. 5; July 10, 1995, pp. 3840; August 21,1995, p. 24.

Journal of the American Medical Association, January 13, 1989, pp. 284285.

Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1995, pp. El, E6.

New York Times, June 22,1995, p. A12.

USA Today, June 13,1994, p. A8; June 21,1995, p. D3.

Washington Times, June 13,1994, p. A7.

Jeanne M. Lesinski

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