HOUSTON / ATLANTA / MONROVIA

Dr. James Densler: America’s First Black Pediatric Surgeon

An Agent of Medical Change in the American South

In March, the City of Atlanta celebrated the journey and achievement of Dr. James Densler, a native son of the American South who challenged the norms of prevailing life in the South in the 1950s. He was able to pave a new route, while working within the constraints imposed in that period. 

Monday, March 6th, was Dr. James F. Densler’s day in the city of Atlanta, a proclamation that reflected his determination to go above and beyond the accepted norms of the dominant prevailing society and forge a better route for his people. The proclamation was delivered by Rep. Andrea Boon and served as a testament to Dr. Densler’s transformation but also a reflection of the journey of the city of Atlanta. On returning to Atlanta, Mr. Densler became part of the apparatus that helped integrate the city’s segregated healthcare system. To enable black physicians to practice in the city’s hospitals, many of the Medical systems had to be sued in court. Many medical practitioners fled the state during that period, but the first African American pediatric surgeon was eager to relocate from New York to join Dr. Clinton Warner’s practice, bringing required changes that were already underway to the city’s health care options for minorities in the state.

As a child of the south, he was not allowed to enter the university of his choosing, and as if by divine design, the one chosen for him, “Meharry Medical College” matched his determination and gave him wings; he flew. Atlanta City Council recognized Dr. Densler for his service to the community and for bringing to the city a skill set that was generally available in the south. He was the first African American pediatric surgeon in the nation when he graduated in 1968.

He relocated to Atlanta after working as an intern in New York, bringing a set of skills to a region of the nation that had never received such specialized medical treatment from a black doctor.

In 1969 he relocated Atlanta in 1969, where he entered private practice in partnership with Dr. Clinton Warner and Dr. Warner E. Meadows. Their business was the second medical group to be incorporated in Georgia and the first black owned to achieve this status. Dr. Densler was the first African American pediatric surgeon in the city of Atlanta, and in 1980 he became the first pediatric doctor to hold a position on the Fulton County Hospital Authority’s board. In the early days as an African American medical practitioner in the city of Atlanta, you could attend medical conferences in the city but were not allowed to eat lunch at the conference hotels.

He worked for a short period in New York before moving to Atlanta in 1969, where he entered private practice in partnership with Dr. Clinton Warner and Dr. Warner E. Meadows. Their business was the second medical group to be incorporated in Georgia, and the first black-owned business to achieve this status. Dr. Densler was the first African American pediatric surgeon in the city of Atlanta, and in 1980 he became the first pediatric physician to hold a position on the Fulton County Hospital Authority’s board. 

In the 1960s, as an African American medical practitioner in the city of Atlanta, you could attend medical conferences in the city but were not allowed to eat lunch at the conference hotels.

Dr. Valarie Rice, the president of Morehouse School of Medicine, said, “There is a common saying that it takes a village to raise a child, but at Morehouse, we all feel like we are part of Dr. Densler’s village. Even though he retired many years ago, he still drops in at Morehouse School of Medicine to teach”. Dr. Densler was a member of the advisory board tasked with the formation of the Morehouse School of Medicine and still finds time to share his wisdom. As Dr. Rice stated, “People who end up first don’t usually set out to be first; they set out to do something that they love, and when you’re doing things that you love, you’re at your best.”

 When asked about his feelings on receiving the proclamation, he said, “I was delighted to be honored. It was great to see the many children that were there, and if the ceremony inspired or motivated a few of them, that would be great. Something that puts in place a chance for a new direction, a chance to shift their consciousness, where they can realize a world of options, changes, and other possibilities. I am concerned that the current generation may not understand the value of working hard or the ability to deliver”.

Editorial: Lashley

Images: Zeriba Media

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