Cornwell, Edward E., III

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Edward E. Cornwell III


Trauma surgeon, educator

As one of the top trauma surgeons in the United States, Edward E. Cornwell saves the lives of hundreds of patients each year who come into the emergency room with gunshot wounds and other devastating injuries. His bloody hands, he has voiced, are a testament to the scourge of violence in U.S. cities—which is why he has become a leading advocate for violence prevention in American communities. In his work at some of the best trauma centers in the country over two decades, not only has Cornwell led the way in the surgical treatment of gunshot wounds and the administration of critical care, he also has become a powerful voice for cultural change. Cornwell's goal is nothing short of ambitious: to fundamentally change the way Americans think about and portray violence.

Edward Eugene Cornwell III was born on November 30, 1956, in Washington, DC, the son of Edward Cornwell II, a surgeon, and Shirley Cornwell. After graduating from Sidwell Friends School, he studied biology at Brown University, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1978. He went on to attend Howard University College of Medicine, completing his MD degree with honors in 1982. Though he had not intended to follow in his father's footsteps, his own experience on the operating table redirected his career path: "My father was a surgeon. When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a football player and a mathematician in the off-season. But when I had my own operation, a cornea transplant … that really cemented my desire to become a physician and probably a surgeon," Cornwell told talk show host Oprah Winfrey in 2000.

Cornwell trained as a surgeon in two of the toughest urban areas in the country, first completing his internship and residency in trauma surgery at the Los Angeles County/University of Southern California (USC) Medical Center (from 1982 to 1987), and then a fellowship at the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services in Baltimore (from 1987 to 1989), where he studied trauma and critical care and the administration of emergency management. In both cities he experienced firsthand the gory realities of violence-plagued neighborhoods, treating the victims of gunshot wounds and other violent injuries—many of them young African-American men—on a daily basis. In a 2006 interview published in Johns Hopkins Magazine, he stated, "Before each day I was on call during my residency, I would stop and pray that I would be able to handle whatever was about to come into that trauma center."

Cornwell began his professional career in 1989 at Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC—his birth place. In 1993 he returned to the Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center, an elite trauma center that was treating a staggering twelve hundred gunshot wounds every year. Five years later he was recruited for the position of chief of adult trauma at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was then in the process of upgrading its trauma facilities to Level I, the highest level of care.

At Johns Hopkins Cornwell operated on nearly three hundred gunshot-wound victims each year. Many of his patients, he found, were repeat customers, and nearly a third were young men under the age of nineteen. In his interview published in Johns Hopkins Magazine, Cornwell recalled performing a series of operations to save the life of a fifteen-year-old gunshot victim who had been brought to the emergency room by a cab driver. "That boy's mother called me last July to tell me he'd been shot in the head while sitting in a car," he said.

Cornwell's experiences in the emergency room prompted him to turn his sights to the streets outside the hospital and to become a vocal advocate for violence prevention. According to Cornwell, the problem lies in Americans' cultural attitudes toward violence: "Long before Virginia Tech, long before Columbine, we've been a country that glamorizes violence. We live in a culture of violence. Kids from all ages and all backgrounds are inundated with images of violence that glorify it," he said in a question-and-answer session at Stanford University in 2007. Cornwell aims to combat those images by giving young people a dose of reality, exposing the true effects of violence.

In 2000 Cornwell was featured in the ABC television series Hopkins 24/7, a six-part documentary that followed him in his work in the emergency room and in the East Baltimore community. In one episode Cornwell brought a group of young people to the hospital to visit a gunshot victim whom he had operated on. The series brought considerable attention to his antiviolence message: Soon he was hearing from lawmakers, appearing in People magazine, and talking with Oprah Winfrey.

In 2003 executives at MTV approached Cornwell to get his input on an antiviolence video they had produced starring 50 Cent, a rapper whose lyrics were filled with just the sort of violent imagery Cornwell was trying to counter. He was appalled by the video, which seemed to have the opposite effect, glamorizing violence. According to Cornwell' interview in Johns Hopkins Magazine, "I told them I was offended by this as a black male, as a father, and as a trauma surgeon." Instead, he proposed that the network splice scenes from Hopkins 24/7 with images from their video to point out the difference between the fantasy of rap videos and real life.

MTV never took him up on his offer, but in 2005 Cornwell lent his support to a state-sponsored antiviolence program—"Hype vs. Reality"—initiated by Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich Jr. The program, given star backing by basketball superstar Carmelo Anthony, who lived in Baltimore from the age of eight, aimed to stem the tide of urban violence by exposing the false images and messages that the media conveys about violence.

In 2008 Cornwell left Johns Hopkins to return, once again, to Howard University, becoming chair of the Department of Surgery in the College of Medicine and surgeon-in-chief of Howard University Hospital. At Howard, Cornwell's goal focused on developing centers of excellence in trauma and critical care, transplant surgery, and cardiovascular surgery, and establishing the university as a top training site for surgeons. Still, his most important work, as he saw it, was to continue to push his antiviolence message outside the hospital.

At a Glance …

Born Edward Eugene Cornwell III on November 30, 1956, in Washington, DC; son of Edward E. Cornwell II and Shirley Cornwell; married Maggie Burdette Covington, June 24, 1989; children: Michael. Education: Brown University, BA, biology, 1978; Howard University College of Medicine, MD, 1982.

Career: Howard University College of Medicine, assistant professor of surgery, 1989-93, surgeon-in-chief of Howard University Hospital and chair of Department of Surgery, 2008-; University of Southern California, assistant professor of surgery, 1993-97; Johns Hopkins Hospital, chief of adult trauma, and professor of surgery for Johns Hopkins Medical School, 1998-2008.

Memberships: American Association for the Surgery of Trauma; American College of Surgeons; National Medical Association, past president of Surgical Section; Society of Black Academic Surgeons, past president; Society of Critical Care Medicine; Society of University Surgeons; TraumaNet Maryland, past chair.

Awards: "What's Right with Southern California" Community Service Award, KCBS-TV, 1998; Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award, Baltimore, 1999; Maryland Governor's Volunteer Service Award, 2000; named one of America's Leading Black Doctors, Black Enterprise magazine, 2001; Champion of Courage Award, FOX-45 TV, 2003; Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, Greater Baltimore Urban League, 2005; Speaker's Medallion, Speaker of the House of Delegates of Maryland, 2006.

Addresses: Office—Howard University Hospital, Department of Surgery, Suite 4B-02, 2041 Georgia Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20060-0002.

Cornwell has garnered many accolades for his medical and community service work. In 1996 he was nomi- nated for the USC Good Neighbor Volunteer Award and was chosen as the commencement speaker at the USC School of Medicine by the graduating class. He received the "What's Right with Southern California" Community Service Award in 1998, the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award in 1999, and the Maryland Governor's Volunteer Service Award in 2000. Black Enterprise magazine named Cornwell one of America's Leading Black Doctors in 2001. He was honored with the Champion of Courage Award from FOX-45 television in 2003 and the Greater Baltimore Urban League's Whitney M. Young Jr. Award in 2005. Finally, in 2006, Cornwell was presented with the Speaker's Medallion from the Speaker of the House of Delegates of Maryland, in recognition, according to the Journal of the National Medical Association, of his "contributions … to the cause of a better life for all Marylanders."

Selected writings

(With others) "National Medical Association Surgical Section Position Paper on Violence Prevention: A Resolution of Trauma Surgeons Caring for Victims of Violence," Journal of the American Medical Association, June 14, 1995, p. 1788.

(With others) "Health Care Crisis from a Trauma Center Perspective: The LA Story," Journal of the American Medical Association, September 25, 1996, p. 940.

"Enhanced Trauma Program Commitment at a Level I Trauma Center: Effect on the Process and Outcome of Care," Journal of the American Medical Association, November 26, 2003, p. 2644.

"African-Americans' Participation in Clinical Research: Importance, Barriers, and Solutions" (editorial), American Journal of Surgery, January 2007, p. 40.



Johns Hopkins Magazine, April 2006.

Journal of the National Medical Association, April 2008, pp. 357-358.

New Scientist, May 22, 2004, p. 4.


"5 Questions: Edward Cornwell on Youth Violence," Stanford Report, May 16, 2007, (accessed July 18, 2008).

"Inside Look: Real Life ER," Oprah Winfrey Show, (accessed July 18, 2008).

—Deborah A. Ring