David Satcher, the sixteenth surgeon general of the United States, spent much of his career as a physician, scholar, and administrator in Georgia.
Early Life and Education
Born on March 2, 1941, in Anniston, Alabama, Satcher grew up in rural Alabama before the civil rights era. When, at the age of two, he fell dangerously ill with whooping cough, the local hospital was not an option for his African American family; his father persuaded the only local black doctor, Fred Jackson, to walk several miles to their home on his day off to treat Satcher. The family credited Jackson with saving Satcher’s life, and by the age of six, Satcher had decided to follow in the footsteps of the physician who had made such a critical difference in his life and that of his family.
Neither of Satcher’s parents completed elementary school, but they taught him the value of hard work and the importance of education. Teachers in the local black high school, working in poor facilities, gave him extra assignments and pointed him toward Morehouse College in Atlanta. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Morehouse in 1963. In 1970 Satcher received the M.D. and a Ph.D. in cytogenetics from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Satcher is remembered at Case Western as a “dignified activist” who helped to increase African American enrollment and worked in the community with other students to help people understand and use hospital services.
Satcher has held various faculty appointments, chairs, and directorships at Morehouse School of Medicine (1979-82), and before that at University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine and Public Health, where he was director of the King-Drew Sickle Cell Research Center for six years. He was the president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee (1982-93). In 1993 he returned to Atlanta to become the administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (1993-98) and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1993-98).
Appointed surgeon general by U.S. president Bill Clinton on February 13, 1998, Satcher served simultaneously as assistant secretary for health from 1998 to 2001. As surgeon general he continued the battle against smoking and became the nation’s spokesperson on such issues as youth violence, obesity, oral health, sexual health, and suicide prevention. Touched by personal accounts of suicide from professionals and families, Satcher issued the “Call to Action to Prevent Suicide” and contributed to the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. Because his mother had given birth to nine children without access to a hospital and because two of his siblings died in childhood, he championed the cause of equal access to health care for all citizens and made it a priority to eliminate disparities in the nation’s health care system.
In the fall of 2002, Satcher assumed the post of director of the National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine and continues to lecture on issues of suicide prevention, obesity, and access to mental health care. He has received top awards in public health, mental health, and community service. In 2001 he received the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Award for Humanitarian Contributions to the Health of Humankind from the National Foundation for Infectious Disease. (The award is named for U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter.)
Satcher is a fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Preventive Medicine, and the American College of Physicians. He has received service and leadership awards from the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, the New York Academy of Medicine, and Ebony magazine.
Satcher and his wife, Nola, live in Atlanta and have four children. Satcher has often said that he wants to be known as “the Surgeon General who listened to the American people and who responded with effective programs.”