William G. Anderson, DO, has packed a lot of life into the last 87 years.
An influential civil rights activist, he worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy to fight segregation and discrimination during the Civil Rights Movement.
An accomplished osteopathic surgeon, he became the first African-American president of the AOA in the mid-1990s.
And today, although retired from clinical practice, Dr. Anderson remains active in the osteopathic medical profession as an advisor to the dean of the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in East Lansing.
“There’s still a lot I want to do,” he says. “In 20 years, I might think about retiring.”
‘Attitude of limitlessness’
Beyond his civil rights leadership and professional accomplishments, Dr. Anderson counts a rich family life as one of his greatest achievements. Alongside his wife, Norma, he raised five children, three of whom followed in his footsteps to become osteopathic physicians. Furthermore, two of his grandchildren also carry on the family tradition as DOs.
Well-versed in the history of Dr. Anderson’s proud career, his children and grandchildren often marvel at how far the osteopathic profession has advanced in the 60 years since he became a DO. Even more, they have a deep respect for the actions he took to help pave the way for the minority physicians who came after him.
“I truly appreciate the sacrifices my grandparents made throughout history for my generation,” says Dr. Anderson’s granddaughter, Camille Blake, DO, PhD, an internist in Tallahassee, Florida. “By observing them, I developed an attitude of limitlessness. I never once felt that being African-American should stop me from pursuing my dreams.”
Breaking the ice
Dr. Anderson often shares stories of the prejudice and discrimination he faced as a young physician during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. Drawing on persistence, determination and assertiveness, he worked to chip away at the racial walls that surrounded him.
When the hospital where he completed his clinical rotations would only assign him African-American patients, Dr. Anderson convinced the program administrator to assign him a few white patients on a trial basis.
“They tried it, and nothing negative happened,” Dr. Anderson says. “Somebody had to break the ice, somebody had to take that first step.”
Dr. Anderson’s son, William G. Anderson II, DO, credits his father and others of his generation for blazing the trail, but says the work is not done. “Blacks continue to be underrepresented in osteopathic, as well as allopathic medicine,” says Dr. Anderson II, a former ob-gyn and current medical educator in Livonia, Michigan. “Things are much better than they once were, but we still have a long way to go.”
The work-life revolution
One of the biggest changes to evolve the practice of medicine is the younger generation’s focus on work-life balance, the Andersons agree.
Dr. Anderson loves to recount his early days running a family practice in Albany, Georgia during the early 1960s. Back then, many area hospitals denied black doctors hospital privileges, so Dr. Anderson often delivered babies in his office or at patient’s homes.
“The patients knew where I lived,” he remembers. “They even knew where my bedroom was. When a woman was in labor, she would send her husband to my home. Many of my patients didn’t have telephones. So the husband would knock on the door of my bedroom and say, ‘My wife is in labor!'”
During those years, practicing medicine was typically an all-encompassing endeavor. Dr. Anderson recalls having his office open for 12 hours a day and then making house calls during evenings and on Sundays.
Two generations later, Dr. Blake points to the development of hospitalist positions and the expansion of emergency medicine as game-changers for physicians.
“These advancements open the door for physicians, especially female physicians, to better balance a family life while maintaining a successful career,” says Dr. Blake.
Although such changes have resulted in more opportunities for flexibility among today’s physicians, Dr. Blake has great admiration for the dedication and sacrifices of past generations. “Younger physicians really respect older physicians for that,” she says.