A living legacy

5 questions with civil rights icon William G. Anderson, DO

Dr. Anderson speaks about blazing a trail in medicine and gives words of wisdom to the next generation of DOs.

With a career spanning more than 60 years, William G. Anderson, DO, has broken countless barriers as an osteopathic physician, educator and civil rights leader.

During the Civil Rights Movement, he worked alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. With them, he led the Albany Movement, the first mass movement in the civil rights era when protestors marched to end community segregation.

In the world of medicine, Dr. Anderson became the first black surgical resident in Detroit and the first black president of the AOA. Throughout his career, Dr. Anderson has used his voice to advocate for diversity in the profession.

In the following Q+A, Dr. Anderson speaks about the legacy he has created and gives words of wisdom to the next generation of DOs.

Why did you choose osteopathic medicine?

I was inspired and urged to get an education from both my mother and my father. To break out of segregation and discrimination, it was going to be by the vehicle of education.

I don’t know how I got the motivation to become a physician. The whole family laughed at me when I told them I wanted to be a physician because no one in the family was a doctor.

The only osteopathic physician of color in the southern half of the U.S. at the time was a good friend of my father’s and his personal physician. They were fraternity brothers. I met with Willie Joe Reese, DO, who had a very active practice in Albany, Georgia. He would deliver babies at home because they wouldn’t give him hospital privileges.

Dr. Reese told me to apply to what is now the Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine Sciences, where he used to teach biochemistry. I took the entrance exams, passed them and was accepted to the school all in one day.

How did you first get involved with the Civil Rights Movement?

My first exposure to the Civil Rights movement was in Albany, Georgia. When I was in Atlanta going to mortuary science school, I had met Martin Luther King, Jr., who at the time was a student at Morehouse College.

It was the students, mostly from the north, who came to Albany, Georgia, to start a voter registration project. They were jailed and harassed because they were trying to get black people registered to vote, which was a no-no.

I saw the students and the way they were being treated. I came out of my office and after watching these kids be intimidated, I went and started marching. They weren’t marching for themselves, they were doing it for myself, my family, my patients and my community. I couldn’t help but join them.

How did you embrace the osteopathic philosophy in your practice of medicine?

It wasn’t until I got to medical school and came under the osteopathic principles that I began to develop an appreciation of what A.T. Still had been teaching—that the body is interdependent on structure and function and it can heal itself.

The fewer drugs you can use, the better the patient is. Give the body support with proper diet and exercise. These principles are used by the better doctors. Those principles have stood the test of time for over 100 years. I learned the value of that in practice.

How have you influenced the osteopathic profession?

There are now three generations in my family who have chosen osteopathic medicine, two of my sons and my daughter, as well as two grandchildren. They saw what I was doing and chose to become osteopathic physicians.

What one piece of advice would you give to students?

Be true to yourself and depend on the best things you have learned as opposed to the most popular.

Further reading:

It enabled me to live my dreams’: Recipients of the William G. Anderson, DO, scholarship share its impact

‘Courageous impact’: Barbara Ross-Lee, DO, trailblazer for women and minorities, retires

3 generations of DOs in the Anderson family carry on a proud tradition


  1. Al Faigin DI

    Way to go Dr Anderson
    You have been a tole model for more than you know. Even though you are in Michigan and I’m in Texas you have been an influence in my professional life as long as I’ve known you. It took me moving to Tx from Michigan where I was born and went to school and practiced Osteopathic medicine in Bad Axe for a few years before we met. Always nice to hear you speak your mind.
    Al Faigin DO

  2. Alexa Hodgins

    It was an honor to know you at Riverview. I just reread “Autobiographies of a Black Couple of the Greatest Generation”. You have been an inspiration for so many as a physician and a Civil Rights Activist.

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