Foster, Henry W. Jr. 1933–
Henry W. Foster Jr. 1933–
Physician, educator, presidential advisor
When Dr. Henry Foster’s 1995 nomination to the post of U.S. Surgeon General failed to gain Senate approval, it represented a rare setback in an otherwise successful career. Over the course of a 40-year career in medicine, Foster has continually championed the cause of quality health care for disadvantaged populations. From maternal care for the rural poor to pregnancy prevention for urban teens, Foster has been a leading advocate for the development of health service delivery systems that meet the needs of poverty-stricken communities. While a few members of the Senate objected loudly to some of his past practices, the positive impact of Foster’s work on the lives of the individuals and families he has served is beyond dispute.
Henry Wendell Foster Jr. was born September 8, 1933 in the Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to Henry Wendell Foster Sr. and Ivie Foster. The Fosters were a family of educators. Henry Sr. held a masters degree from the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, and was a high school teacher and football coach. He was revered in Pine Bluff for leading the Merrill High School football team to two national championships. Ivie’s resume included a stint as an art instructor at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College, and both of her parents were schoolteachers as well.
Henry Sr. was a strict disciplinarian. He also emphasized the importance of education as a way of escaping the poverty experienced by many African Americans in the South. Foster took his father’s advice to heart, and excelled academically at Corbin High School, which was located on the Pine Bluff campus of the University of Arkansas.
Foster acquired an intense interest in aviation at an early age, stemming from an educational airplane ride arranged by his father as a science field trip. By the time he graduated from Corbin, he was serious enough about flying to consider a career as a pilot. Faced with the reality that opportunities in aviation were scarce for African American men, and inspired by his childhood doctor Cleon Flowers, Foster chose to become a medical professional.
Following graduation from high school, Foster enrolled at Morehouse College. In addition to excelling academically, he engaged in an active social life as a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. Foster graduated from Morehouse in 1954, and went on to the University of Arkansas Medical School, where he was the only
Born Henry Wendell Foster Jr. on September 8, 1933, in Pine Bluff, AR; son of Henry Wendell (a high school teacher) and Ivie (a college art instructor) Foster; married St. Clair Anderson, 1960; children: Myrna Faye, Wendell III; Education: Morehouse College, BS in biology, 1954; University of Arkansas School of Medicine, MD, 1958.
Career: Detroit Receiving Hospital, intern, 1958-59; Larson Air Force Base, chief, obstetrics and gynecology, 1959-61; Maiden Hospital, Maiden, MA, general surgery resident, 1961-62; Meharry Medical College, Nashville, TN, obstetrics and gynecology resident, 1962-65; John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, Tuske-gee Institute, chief of obstetrics and gynecology, 1965-73; Meharry Medical College, department chair, obstetrics and gynecology, 1973-90, dean, School of Medicine, 1990-93, acting president, 1993-94; Association of Academic Health Centers, senior scholar-in-residence, 1994-95; senior advisor to the President on Teen Pregnancy Reduction and Youth Issues, 1996-; expert consultant to the Secretary of Department of Healthand Human Services and to the Director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1996-.
Selected awards: Thousand Points of Light Award (for “I Have a Futu re Program “), 1991; President’s Award, Morehouse College National Alumni Association, 1995; Meritorious Service Award, National Medical Assocation, Obstetrics andGynecology Section, 1996; Outstanding Service Award, Meharry Medical College Departmentof Surgery, 1997; Certificate of Appreciation, Vanderbilt University, School of Nursing, 1999.
Addresses: Office— Department of Health and Human Services, 200 Independence Avenue, SW, Room 717-H, Washington DC, 20201-0004.
African American in a class of 96 students. In spite of the racial tension surrounding him—Arkansas was in the throes of forced school desegregation during this period—Foster thrived at the University of Arkansas. He became the university’s first African American student to be elected into Alpha Omega Alpha, the school’s honor society in medicine.
Foster graduated from medical school in 1958, and began an internship at Detroit Receiving Hospital, which was connected to Wayne State University. It was there that he met St. Clair “Sandy” Anderson, a nurse at the nearby Dearborn Veterans Administration Hospital. The pair married on February 6, 1960.
Meanwhile, Foster entered the U.S. Air Force in 1959. The Air Force was experiencing a shortage of obstetricians at the time, and Foster was given the option of enrolling in a three-month obstetrics and gynecology course, which would result in a permanent assignment as a civilian specialist. After completing the training program at Carswell Air Force Base in Texas, Foster was sent to Moses Lake, Washington, where he worked with local obstetrician Anson Hughes. During his stint in the military, Foster delivered nearly 500 babies.
After being discharged from the Air Force in 1961, Foster moved to Boston for a year of general surgical training at Maiden Hospital. Upon completing his training at Maiden, he accepted a residency at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Foster completed his residency at Meharry in 1965. That year, he took a job at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Foster primarily served an African American, poor, and rural population that was spread over several counties. It was there that he became acutely aware of the shortcomings of the medical system in the rural South. Foster discovered that he was treating his patients for serious problems that could have been prevented had they received basic medical care.
Foster initiated a series of reforms at Tuskegee Institute that would serve as a model for delivering health care services in poor, rural areas. He made the hospital an education and research center, and convinced officials at Meharry Medical College to set up a rotation in obstetrics and gynecology at Tuskegee for third-year medical students. The impact of Foster’s initiatives was dramatic. The region saw a substantial decrease in its infant mortality rate. Visiting health officials from developing countries were frequently brought in to observe how these kinds of gains had been achieved. In 1970, Foster realized a lifelong dream when he purchased his own airplane. He used the airplane both for recreational flying and medical emergencies.
Foster received many awards for his skill and dedication. He was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1972, becoming one of the youngest physicians ever to receive membership in that prestigious association. The following year, Foster left Alabama to return to Meharry as chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology. He would remain in that position until 1990. In 1975, he also joined the faculty of Vanderbilt University as a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology. Although he was no longer based in a rural setting, Foster continued to focus his efforts on the needs of at-risk populations, specifically young mothers living in poverty. He received $12 million in funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 1980 to launch the High-Risk Young People’s Program. This program was designed to make health services more accessible to vulnerable populations, particularly infants and poor mothers. In 1987, Foster unveiled his widely acclaimed “I Have a Future” program. The goal of this initiative, funded primarily by the Carnegie Foundation, was to educate disadvantaged teens in Nashville about the importance of responsible sexual behavior. It also emphasized the importance of a positive self-image and encouraged participants to go to college. The project received national attention in 1991, when President George Bush designated it as one of his “Thousand Points of Light.”
In 1990, Foster was named dean of the school of medicine at Meharry. Soon after, Meharry president David Satcher was named head of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. For the 1993-94 academic year, Foster served as acting president of Meharry Medical College. When a new president was appointed in 1994, Foster took the opportunity to spend a sabbatical year conducting research at the Association of Academic Health Centers in Washington, DC.
The series of events for which Foster is most widely known took place in 1995, when President Bill Clinton nominated him for the post of U.S. Surgeon General. Foster’s nomination to replace the fired Jocyelyn Elders—the first African American surgeon general and a close friend of Foster’s—quickly became controversial. Conservatives in the Senate voiced strong opposition to Foster’s nomination based on his advocacy of birth control, his association with Planned Parenthood, and, most importantly, the fact that he had performed 39 abortions. Although he received a favorable recommendation from the nominating committee, Foster fell victim to procedural maneuvering that prevented his nomination from going to a vote. Thwarted by a Republican filibuster, Foster was ultimately denied the chance to join the Clinton cabinet.
Disappointed but not discouraged, Foster continued to battle for better health care for the poor. In the wake of the failed nomination, President Clinton tapped Foster as his senior advisor on teen pregnancy reduction and youth issues. He also serves as an expert consultant to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From these positions, Foster is able to provide an influential voice in the creation of national policy on many issues that impact the lives of disadvantaged families across the United States.
American Medical News, May 15, 1995, p. 4.
Jet, February 20, 1995, p. 13; February 26, 1996, p. 22.
Newsweek, February 20, 1995, p. 26.
People Weekly, March 13, 1995, p. 69.
Time, May 15, 1995, p. 34.
U.S. News & World Report, March 6, 1995, p. 36.
Additional material for this profile was provided by Dr. Foster’s office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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