Griffith, Patrick A.

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Patrick A. Griffith



Just when Alzheimer's disease was being recognized as an emerging health issue for African Americans, Dr. Patrick A. Griffith, chair of the Department of Neurology and director of the Clinical Research Center at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, was the lead investigator on studies of Alzheimer's in blacks. An expert on the diagnosis, management, and treatment of dementia, particularly vascular dementia, and the prevention of stroke in black Americans, Griffith's study was the first to examine the effects of a particular drug on black Alzheimer's patients. His results suggested that treatment with donepezil was safe and effective for 80% of black seniors with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.

Had Role Models in Medicine

Born on December 30, 1944, in Georgetown, Guyana, in South America, Patrick A. Griffith was the son of Duncan MacGregor Griffith, a court stenographer, and Edith May (Stevenson) Griffith, a registered nurse and midwife. Patrick's aunt, Ivy King, was also a nurse and his cousin, Charles Lewis, had left Guyana to become a radiologist and the family's first physician. With these role models it was not surprising that Patrick Griffith gravitated toward medicine. In 1957 the Griffith family immigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn, New York, where Duncan Griffith worked in the court system. However Patrick stayed behind in Georgetown to finish high school on a scholarship. Although he became a U.S. citizen, having come from a British Commonwealth country Patrick chose to follow his older brother to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, using a scholarship he received from the state of New York.

After graduating from McGill in 1967, Griffith entered the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. During his first year he began working with Dr. Jesse Barber, a neurosurgeon and, at the time, one of only four black board-certified neurologists in the world. Barber taught Griffith clinical neurology from the perspective of a neurosurgeon in the stroke unit at Howard. Griffith told Contemporary Black Biography that "I decided to become a neurologist because Howard didn't have one, although I never made it back to Howard except as a visiting professor."

With the advent of affirmative action, Harvard University hospitals began to recruit minorities. Griffith was recruited for an internship in internal medicine at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, one of only two black interns there and the first Howard graduate to intern at any Harvard hospital. Subsequently he completed a three-year residency in neurology there and at two other Harvard hospitals, Children's and Beth Israel.

Volunteered for the Air Force

At the height of the Vietnam War, Griffith faced being drafted and sent overseas immediately upon graduating from medical school. He was already married at the time and had two young children. But he found an alternative. "By volunteering for the inactive reserves," Griffith explained to CBB, "I was able to complete my internship and residency and enter active duty in the Air Force as a major. It provided my family with some stability." Griffith served two years as chief of neurology at Ehrling Berquist Hospital at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. Later he switched to the U.S. Army Reserves in Augusta, Georgia, serving as Chief of Professional Services for the 3297th Hospital Unit, on active duty during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and retiring as a colonel in 1996.

After completing his active military service Griffith was recruited by the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, as an asistant professor of Neurology and deputy chief of service at Grady Memorial Hospital. In 1980 he added a part-time assistant professorship at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. In 1985 Griffith began a private practice in conjunction with physical therapists at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He became an adjunct clinical professor in the Department of Physical Therapy there, and later at North Georgia College in Dahlonega as well, studying the management of chronic pain in physical therapy patients.

In 1986 Griffith became an assistant clinical professor of community medicine and preventive health at Morehouse, where he became involved in HIV/AIDS education projects. Three year later Morehouse promoted him to full-time associate professor and he continued on at Emory as an adjunct. His decade-long private neurology practice was absorbed into the Morehouse medical clinics.

At a Glance …

Born Patrick A. Griffith on December 30, 1944, in Georgetown, Guyana; married Marcia Fay Wilson, 1969; children: Melodie Jean, Derek MacGregor. Education: McGill University, BS, 1967; Howard University, MD, 1971. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, active-duty major, 1975-77; U.S. Army Reserves, 1981-96, retired as colonel. Religion: Episcopalian.

Career: Harvard University hospitals, Boston, MA, intern, 1971-72, resident, 1972-75; Emory University School of Medicine, Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta, GA, Deputy Chief of Service, 1977-79, assistant professor of neurology, 1977-96; Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, assistant professor of clinical medicine, 1980-86, assistant clinical professor of community medicine and preventive health, 1986-89, associate professor of clinical medicine, 1989-99, associate professor of clinical psychiatry, 1990-99, Managed Care Institute, co-director, 1996-2001, professor of clinical medicine, 1999-2005; Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, clinical professor, 1985-2005; North Georgia College, Dahlonega, GA, clinical professor, 1995-2005; Meharry Medical College, Nashville, TN, Department of Neurology, professor and chair, Clinical Research Center, director, 2005-.

Selected memberships: American Academy of Neurology, fellow; Atlanta Medical Association, president, chairman; Georgia Medical Care Foundation, chairman; Georgia State Medical Association, president, chairman; Southern Clinical Neurology Society, president.

Selected awards: Atlanta Medical Association, Merit Award, 1980, Physician of the Year, 1989, NASH-CARTER Award, 1998; Georgia State Medical Association, Outstanding Service, 1983; Morehouse School of Medicine, Outstanding Service, 1985, 1986, Distinguished Contributions, 1989; Church of the Incarnation, Outstanding Service, 1991; United Health Care Insurance Company, Outstanding Physician of the Year, 1998.

Addresses: Office—Meharry Medical College, 1005 Dr. D.B. Todd Jr. Blvd., Nashville, TN 37208-3501.

Studied Alzheimer's in Black Americans

Griffith initially went to Morehouse to work with Dr. Beverly Taylor who was developing an Alzheimer's Disease Registry that, for the first time, included black Americans. Dr. Griffith told CBB: "At the time it was thought that Alzheimer's was much more prevalent among whites and that vascular and alcohol-related dementias were more common in blacks." However when Griffith and his coworkers began to distinguish carefully between Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, to their surprise they found that Alzheimer's was two to three times more prevalent among African Americans than among whites. At a time when the number of black Americans over age 65 was increasing rapidly, elderly black Americans were statistically at the highest risk of developing Alzheimer's. Among black Americans over the age of 85 the risk of Alzheimer's was almost 50%. The researchers also found that the disease was more prevalent among women than previously believed and more prevalent among Hispanics than among whites. Since vascular dementia is caused by multiple strokes and Alzheimer's and stroke share common risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, the researchers concluded that, in the absence of genetic factors, blacks and Hispanics had higher rates of Alzheimer's because they shared those risk factors.

About 15-20% of Alzheimer's cases in elderly blacks appeared to be hereditary and Griffith began searching for genetic causes that might explain their higher incidence of Alzheimer's. The researchers found that first-degree relatives-especially oldest daughters-of African Americans with Alzheimer's were at a higher risk for developing the disease than first-degree relatives of whites with Alzheimer's. They also found that both black and white women were at a higher risk than men and that the presence of the apolipoprotein E epsilon 4 gene increased the risk. However as of 2007, no specific genetic marker had been found for Alzheimer's risk in blacks.

Griffith's study found that black Alzheimer's patients who took donepezil over a 12-week period showed significant improvement in memory, behavior, and ability to perform daily tasks. It was a landmark study. In the past clinical trials had generally excluded blacks and more recently black Americans had typically been reluctant to participate; yet Griffith enrolled 126 patients in his study with a completion rate of almost 80%. It was also the first Alzheimer's study to use the Fuld Object Memory Evaluation, which had been validated with black Americans. In a 2005 interview with the International Medical News Group, reported in Family Practice News, Griffith said of the test: "It relies on touch and vision. We may have a measuring tool for future clinical trials that will avoid previous reports of educational or cultural bias."

Dr. Griffith was the recipient of many teaching and community service awards. He was a visiting professor at various medical schools including the Mayo Clinic Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota; St. George's University School of Medicine in Grenada, West Indies; the University of Rochester Medical Center; and Rush Medical School in Chicago.

Moved to Meharry Medical College

In 2005 Griffith moved to Meharry where he continued his research, teaching, and clinical practice. His wife, Marcia Griffith, a health education specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, remained in Atlanta and the couple maintained homes outside of both Atlanta and Nashville.

Griffith remained concerned that black Americans with Alzheimer's were often not diagnosed until the disease had advanced. "Some African-American caregivers have to choose between going to work to obtain a reasonable living and stopping and getting off work to take loved ones to the doctor," Griffith told Lorinda M. Bullock in 2006, as reported in the Louisiana Weekly. "In some of these groups where income is a problem, they're forced to choose and unfortunately there's a delay in seeking an evaluation and also a delay sometimes on the part of the providers." He urged patients, caregivers, and physicians to be on the lookout for early symptoms such as memory loss and to intervene with treatment.

Selected writings


"Headaches," in Clinical Methods, H. K. Walker, W. D. Hall, and J. W. Hurst, eds., Butterworths, 1980.

(With P. B. Gorelick) "Late Sequelae of Cerebrovascular Disease in African Americans: Vascular Dementia," in Stroke in Blacks: A Guide to Management and Prevention, R. F. Gillum, P. B. Gorelick, and E. S. Cooper, eds., Karger, 1999, pp. 188-197.


(With R. C. Young, Jr.) "Tuberculosis Case-Finding in the Seventies," Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol. 63, No. 6, November 1971, pp. 432-435.

"Brain Death and the Neurologist," Atlanta Medicine, 1995, pp. 31-32.

(With others) "Risk of Dementia Among White and African American Relatives of Patients With Alzheimer Disease," Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 287, No. 3, January 16, 2002, pp. 329-336.

(With others) "Association Between Apolipoprotein E Genotype and Alzheimer Disease in African American Subjects," Archives of Neurology, Vol. 59, 2002, pp. 594-600.

(With others) "Depression as a Risk Factor for Alzheimer Disease. The Mirage Study," Archives of Neurology, Vol. 60, 2003, pp. 753-759.

(With others) "Open-Label Trial of Donepezil in African Americans with Mild to Moderate Alzheimer's Disease," Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol. 98, 2006, pp. 1590-1597.



Ebony, November 2005, p. 54.

Family Practice News, May 15, 2005, p. 52.


"New Drug Said to be Effective in Helping Blacks with Alzheimer's Disease," The Louisiana Weekly, (August 5, 2007).


Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Dr. Patrick Griffith on September 6, 2007.

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