Freeman, Harold P. 1933–

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Harold P. Freeman 1933


At a Glance

Became a Surgeon

Improved Cancer Screening

Headed Presidential Panel

A Leader in Cancer Fight


Harold P. Freeman has been fighting for years. The enemy is cancer, particularly the alarming incidence of breast cancer among minority women. As chairman of the Presidents Cancer Panel and president and chief executive officer of North General Hospital in New York City, he has taken his battle to the highest echelons in the hope of one day conquering his foe.

Freeman was raised by an educated, cultured family. His great grand-uncle, Robert Tanner Freeman, graduated from Harvard in 1869 with a doctoral degree in dentistry, the first African American to obtain this degree. Freemans grandfather, Henry W. Freeman, finished Howard University Medical School in 1898, teaching during the day to afford the pursuit of his academic studies in the evening. His cousin, Robert Weaver, was the former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Lyndon Johnson, and the first African American cabinet member. His father, Clyde, completed law school when he was 40 years old, working as a cab driver and night watchman to earn his tuition. Unfortunately, he died tragically of testicular cancer just six years later, when Harold was only 13 years-old. The primary burden of raising Harold and his two older brothers, Clyde and Thomas, fell to his mother, Lucille, who was a school teacher. Lucille struggled financially, but saw two of her three sons graduate from medical school.

Freeman attended Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. At the time, Dunbar actually exemplified excellence resulting from segregation. As Freeman explained in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography, Dunbar attracted those young African American students who wished to go to college. Moreover, it also recruited a very high caliber of teachers. Members of the Dunbar faculty had doctoral degrees from Harvard and Princeton but, because of racial prejudice, could find no other teaching positions. Thus, in an artificial way, Dunbar became a preparatory school for the best African American students from around the country.

Not only did Lucille Freeman encourage her sons academic pursuits, but she also supported his efforts on the tennis court. Freeman proved to be, as he told Edward Edelson of The Daily News, a borderline world class tennis player, winning doubles championships on the African American tennis circuit with his brother,

At a Glance

Born Harold P. Freeman on March 2, 1933 in Washington, D.C.; son of Clyde (an attorney) and Lucille (a school teacher) Freeman; married with two children. Education: Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., B.A., 1954; Howard University Medical School, Washington, D.C., M.D., 1958.

Career: Resident, general surgery, Howard University Hospital, Washington, D.C, 1958-62; resident, surgery, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, New York, NY, 1962-63; chief resident, general surgery, Howard University Hospital, Washington, D.C 1963-64; senior resident, surgery, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, New York, NY, 1964-67; assistant attending surgeon, Harlem Hospital Center, New York, NY, 1967-73; at-tending surgeon, Harlem Hospital Center, New York, NY, 1974-99; associate attending surgeon, Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY, 1974-89; attending surgeon, Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY, 1989-; director of surgery, Harlem Hospital Center, New York, NY, 1974-89; medical director, Breast Examination Center of Harlem, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, New York, NY, 1979-; assistant attending surgeon, St Lukes/Roosevelt Medical Center, New York, NY, 1983-; professor of clinical surgery, Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, New York, NY, 1989-; director of surgery, North General Hospital, New York, NY, 1999-; president, CEO, North General Hospital, New York, NY, 1999-.

Addresses: Office North General Hospital, 1879 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10035.

Clyde, as his partner. They even played briefly in the U.S. Open when it was desegregated in the early 1950s.

Graduating second in a high school class of 406 students, Freeman received an academic scholarship to attend Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Excelling academically and athletically, Freeman was selected captain of both the tennis and basketball teams during his senior year. When he graduated in 1954, he received the Harris Award for Outstanding Scholar, Gentleman, and Athlete of the University. Although Freeman considered pursuing a teaching career, his mother wanted him to achieve something higher, and she convinced him to apply to medical school. Despite his strong collegiate achievements, Freeman was only accepted at the Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C., an historically African American institution.

Became a Surgeon

Freeman completed medical school in 1958, and committed to a general surgery residency program at Howard University Hospital. In 1964, he accepted an advanced residency position at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City, where he remained until 1967. Such excellent training allowed Freeman to be considered for higher levels of authority within the field of surgery. In 1974, he became the director of surgery at Harlem Hospital in New York.

Determined to work in what he described to Joyce Wadler of the New York Times as a poor, black community after his residency, Freeman joined Harlem Hospital in 1967 for what he envisioned as a temporary assignment. Instead, he remained on staff at the hospital until August 1, 1999. As he later commented to Edelson, it was an eye-opener to see what I was confronted with here. When Freeman first started at Harlem Hospital, at least half of the women admitted with breast cancer were designated as incurable. Only six percent were determined to have stage-one, or potentially treatable, forms of the disease. I was really raring to go out and do what I could, he recalled in an interview with Sam Grobart of New York Magazine, but this was somewhat of a shock to mehaving been trained to do all this cancer work, and then Im facing late-stage cancer that is too late for me to be effective technicallyWhat I really needed to know was, why do people come in too late for treatment? What are the reasons? Given that his patient base was predominantly African American, Freeman began to explore the relationship between race, human circumstances, and culture and their impact on the disease process.

Improved Cancer Screening

As a first step, Freeman pushed then-New York Governor Hugh L. Carey to open a free breast cancer detection center. Two clinics offering free breast- and cervical-cancer screenings opened in Harlem in 1979 under the auspices of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Medical Center. By 1988, they had examined 15,000 women. Moreover, as director of surgery at Harlem Hospital, Freeman created the Patient Navigator Pro-gram, a program that is emulated throughout the United States. Under this system, uninsured or low-income patients are assigned a volunteer agent-guide to the health-care bureaucracy, who assists them in obtaining access to care and ensuring that diagnostic procedures and treatment are provided in a timely fashion. Since the inception of the program, the average time it takes for an uninsured patient to have a biopsy after initial detection of a questionable finding has been reduced to the same level experienced by a patient in the private sector. Such efforts reinforce Freemans resolve that, as he told Grobart, the war against cancer needs to be fought in the neighborhoods where people live and die.

After 20 years in existence, the results of the screening clinics are impressive. Nearly 40 percent of minority women screened in Harlem are now found at the stageone level, as opposed to six percent in 1967. Despite this improvement, Freeman was not content because nearly 60 percent of white women are found at the stage-one level after the initial examination. Freeman concluded that, although earlier screening had certainly helped women in Harlem, it had not completely solved the problem. As he noted in a 1998 presentation, There are some factors beyond access causing these disparities.

Such explorations have led Freeman to the academic research for which he has become heralded. He is considered the preeminent authority on the subject of poverty and its effects on cancer and general health. According to Edelson, Freemans research has thus helped to expand the view of minorities and cancer in a revolutionary way. In 1986, Freeman published a landmark study entitled, Cancer in the Economically Disadvantaged. In this report, he established real links between poverty and the risk factors of cancer. If you correct for economic status, Freeman explained to Edelson, the racial differences in cancer results would nearly disappearSo the target then became social and economic status rather than the color of skin.

Headed Presidential Panel

The issue of race itself has assumed critical importance to Freeman. In 1998, as chairman of the Presidents Cancer Panel, he wrote a major report which shed light on the real meaning of race in science. According to American law, any person who has one black ancestor, no matter how distant, is categorized as African American. However, Freeman concluded in his studies that race does not exist from a scientific perspective. Rather, he defined race at a 1998 medical conference as a social and political construct, [which] is based on our nations history, and has no basis in science or anthropology. Such findings, Freeman continued, would mean that racial findings are not driven by the point that races are biological classifications. Theres no genetic basis for racial classification[But, ] racism, which is rooted in the erroneous concept of biological race superiority, has powerful societal effects and also influences science.

Freeman has repeatedly distinguished between what he termed in an interview with CBB as the effect of racism, which is real, and the meaning of race from a scientific perspective, which is man-made. Race is important in the sense that such delineations dictate behavior towards a group of people. In essence, Freeman argued, race plays a role as a reflection of the meaning of racism or racialism, as an enduring reminder that people still examine one another through the lens of color.

A Leader in Cancer Fight

Freemans research and commitment to breast cancer detection and prevention have taken him to the upper echelons of leadership in his field. Not only has he been recognized at the national level through his appointment as chairman of the Presidents Cancer Panel under Presidents Bush and Clinton, but he has also served as the national president of the American Cancer Society, as a member of its board of directors since 1996, and as a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences since 1997. In 1990, the American Cancer Society established the Harold P. Freeman Award to be given annually to individuals who have made outstanding contributions in the fight against cancer among the disadvantaged.

In August of 1999, after 32 years of service, Dr. Freeman relinquished his responsibilities at Harlem Hospital and joined the staff of North General Hospital as president and chief executive officer. North General, a 200-bed minority-operated community teaching hospital located just ten blocks from Harlem Hospital, is Harlems sole non-profit medical institution. Still facing the same patient population, Freeman has now as sumed the additional responsibilities of stabilizing his hospital financially. Institutions such as his must survive, he commented to CBB, because the surrounding institutions do not have the understanding, sensitivity, or desire to turn [the local situation] around as those within the community do. As president, Freeman is eager to make the important decisions regarding the hospitals vision and movement into the future.

Freeman has seen progress on many fronts, but he remains far from satisfied. As a self-defined fighter against injustice, he will continue to drive forward in his efforts to educate the uninformed, to clarify the interrelationship between poverty and race, and to improve the human condition. The biological differences between people, after all, are barely skin deep. It is no wonder that Dr. Larry Norton, the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer researcher, called Harold Freeman one of the best people the world ever produced.



Daily News, November 13, 1988.

New York Amsterdam News, June 3-9, 1999, pp. 4, 32.

New York Magazine, June 7, 1999, p. 45.

New York Times, July 1, 1999.

Time Magazine, March 4, 1966, pp. 29-33.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from the curriculum vitae of Harold Freeman and an interview with Contemporary Black Biography on September 8, 1999.

Lisa S. Weitzman

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Freeman, Harold P. 1933–

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