Diversity was a theme of this year’s Triological Society Combined Sections Meeting, held in January in San Diego, Calif. It stood to reason, therefore, that the society’s middle section vice president, Dana M. Thompson, MD, MS, MBA, chose John H. Gladney, MD (1923–2011), to posthumously be her guest of honor for the meeting. “I thought it was important to honor a legacy who really helped me understand the importance of Trio—someone who was unique, and whose contribution tells a part of [the society’s] history that has been understated and not fully recognized,” said Dr. Thompson.
As the first African American to hold the position of chairperson of a basic science or clinical department in the United States, and the first African American physician admitted to the Triological Society, Dr. Gladney was a pioneer in the ongoing mission for diversity and equity in medicine. As a practitioner and educator for more than 50 years, he was a trailblazer in his personal and holistic approach to his patients and students. Together with his wife of close to 70 years, Agnes Clarice Gladney, MA, a speech pathologist, and their three children, he became an important force for racial equality and community-driven advocacy.
Dr. Gladney’s groundbreaking contributions in otolaryngology, education, and civil rights continue to reverberate throughout the medical community, in no small part thanks to the distinguished physician leaders who have applied Dr. Gladney’s influence on them to inspire a new and increasingly diverse generation of physicians.
Forging a Path
Born in Little Rock, Ark., John Gladney grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, attending segregated schools. As a boy, he witnessed the unsanitary conditions of the hospital in which his terminally ill mother was a patient, and the experience left a permanent impression as he set his sights on becoming a doctor. As a teenager, he demonstrated early leadership ability as his high school’s student body president. In 1939, he entered Talladega College in Alabama, that state’s oldest private historically African American liberal arts college. Serving honorably in the U.S. Army Specialized Training Program afforded Dr. Gladney the ability to attend Meharry Medical College in Nashville, the first medical school for African Americans in the South. He interned at the segregated Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis.
As a commissioned U.S. Army captain, Dr. Gladney was called to serve during the Korean War. “But there were people who objected to having an African American commander,” explained William R. Bond, Jr., MD, a Washington, D.C.-area private practice otolaryngologist currently on faculty at Howard University and Georgetown University, and Dr. Gladney’s former medical protégé and friend. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was sent to French Morocco to serve. “Like my parents, John grew up in a segregated society, and had to make inroads in that society. Obviously, there were roadblocks thrown in his path.”
I met Dr. Gladney in my first two to three weeks of medical school. He was the only Black faculty member that I saw there. As one of two African Americans enrolled at SLU and the only one who graduated in my class, that was important to me.
—William R. Bond, Jr., MD
As Dr. Bond related, Dr. Gladney obtained specialty training at the Eye & Ear Infirmary at the University of Illinois (UI) in Chicago and the Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Ill. “From what he told me, [the UI training] was a combined program of otolaryngology and ophthalmology,” said Dr. Bond. “At the time, most people were going the ophthalmic route because they could do refractions and make more money, but John chose to do otolaryngology. He was told that the field was going to die because penicillin had been discovered and people thought that it could take care of disease without having to do the old German operations that were being done in Europe—mastoidectomy and the like—but John stuck with otolaryngology.”
In 1956, Dr. Gladney returned to St. Louis as only one of two otolaryngologists in the entire St. Louis area. He worked on staff at several area hospitals and was a professor at Washington University and at the Saint Louis University (SLU) School of Medicine, where he ultimately became chairman of the department of otolaryngology. In 2000, the SLU School of Medicine established the John H. Gladney Diversity Award, given annually to a fourth-year SLU medical student or faculty member who has contributed significantly to the promotion and enhancement of diversity within the medical school.
A keen observer of people, Dr. Gladney had a deep understanding that every individual is the sum of their life experiences. In treating patients, he looked beyond symptoms to social and environmental factors, and picked up on details and nuances that enabled him to see the whole picture. His recognition of labyrinthine dysfunction in his high-risk population of diabetes patients led to his Triological Society thesis and, ultimately, to additional published work on the topic in 1970 (Ann Otol Rhinol Laryngol. 1970;79:984-991) and 1978 (Ann Otol Rhinol Laryngol. 1978;87:128-134).
Although not as much a matter of record as his achievements in medicine, Dr. Gladney’s interest in and involvement with his students have proven just as impactful. “I met Dr. Gladney in my first two to three weeks of medical school,” recalled Dr. Bond. “He was the only Black faculty member that I saw there. As one of two African Americans enrolled at SLU and the only one who graduated in my class, that was important to me. He made quite an impression on me.”
It wasn’t long before Dr. Gladney had taken Dr. Bond under his wing. “He would invite me to his house for dinner. I got to know his family. Whenever I needed some consoling or counseling, I could always call John and we would talk about it,” explained Dr. Bond.
Dr. Gladney’s practice of actively mentoring trainees never waned, as Dr. Thompson can attest. “It was at a 1997 Triological meeting in Kansas City, Mo., and I was presenting a paper,” she recalled. “I think Dr. Gladney and I were the obvious only two Black physicians in the whole room. He just came up to me with some thoughts and compliments about my paper. Ever since then, he would always reach out at a meeting or intermittently call me during my late residency and throughout the early part of my career, just to check in and see how I was doing, to provide coaching and encouragement.”
The results of Dr. Gladney’s professional and personal support soon became evident. After graduating from medical school, Dr. Bond went on to complete his general surgery training at Indiana University in Indianapolis, and his otolaryngology–head and neck surgery training at Georgetown and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He served honorably in the naval reserves for 28 years, retiring as a captain. He is a diplomate of the American Board of Otolaryngology, and a fellow of the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, the American Society for Head and Neck Surgery, and the National Medical Association.
Through the leadership roles that he held, specifically as the first African American chair of a department, his mentorship transcended race or gender just by who he was and the leadership roles that he held. It was his nature to want to see everybody be successful.
—Dana M. Thompson, MD, MS, MBA
Dr. Gladney was vocal in his support of the Triological Society, recalled Dr. Thompson. “I remember him talking to me about the importance as a Black person of joining the Triological Society as a career differentiator and equalizer. He was so supportive of it and, of course, he was the first African American member,” she said. Indeed, Dr. Thompson followed in Dr. Gladney’s footsteps, becoming the second African American woman to become a member and the first African American to hold a leadership position in the society.
Dr. Thompson recounted a vivid memory about Dr. Gladney. It was early in her career, and she was working at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “The hospital operator paged me. Dr. Gladney had tracked me down to tell me that he could go to only one meeting that year, and if it was the year that I was going to become a member of the society, then that’s the one he wanted to go to,” she said. “He made the effort to find me just to be able to say that. That’s the kind of person he was.”
Leading by Example
Perhaps the deepest impressions that Dr. Gladney made on others were communicated via his actions rather than his words. Not only did he confront cruel and unjust obstacles on his path to success in life and career, but he did it with dignity, focus, and resolve. Dr. Gladney became a daily role model to his patients, students, colleagues, and community by the example of his choice: He chose to settle in a segregated part of the country with a deeply and painfully significant history, in a city where, in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court’s notoriously discriminatory Dred Scott decision was passed down. He chose to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Ala., in 1965. He chose to move into University City, one of the first African Americans to do so, and his family led the way in integrating a segregated public school system.
“John grew up with that discrimination, basically faced it throughout his career,” said Dr. Bond. “He knew his community and their thinking about an African American doctor. He recognized the barriers in front of him. But he always knew what he wanted: his dignity and to be recognized as a professional providing care to the greater St Louis community. He triumphed over that discrimination and became a very respected person in the community. After he retired, the state of Missouri recognized him for the 50 years that he contributed to the health of the community. He was quite honored by that citation because it was a recognition that made up for the early years when he practiced in a segregated St. Louis community.”
In today’s language, Dr. Gladney’s approach to his fellow humans would have been called having “an attitude of abundance.” He felt that there was room for every individual to grow and succeed. “I would just say that he was an advocate for everybody,” stressed Dr. Thompson. “Through the leadership roles that he held, specifically as the first African American chair of a department, his mentorship transcended race or gender just by who he was and the leadership roles that he held. It was his nature to want to see everybody be successful.”
Linda Kossoff is a freelance medical writer based in Woodland Hills Calif.