Arthur H Coleman

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 08 February 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:339

General practitioner who sought to boost opportunities for people from ethnic minorities

Arthur Coleman was one of the first black physicians in San Francisco and a celebrated healthcare and civil rights advocate. He campaigned not only for better services for his mainly African American patients, but also for more opportunities for young people from ethnic minorities to enter medicine.

He set up shop in one of San Francisco's most impoverished and problem ridden neighbourhoods in 1948. By the 1960s his practice had become a magnet for young, gifted African American medical specialists.

Born in urban Philadelphia, Coleman went to Penn State University largely through the determination of his mother, whose voice he heard at dusk every evening calling him in from the streets to study. When he entered Penn State in 1937, he was one of only 13 black students out of a student body of approximately 7000.

While academically fruitful, his experience at college was also socially difficult. He initially was not assigned a dorm room; instead the janitor let him stay in a little closet, “a little space,” his daughter Pat recalled her father telling her. When Coleman went swimming, “everybody went out of the pool. It was hard times,” she said.

After graduating from Howard University College of Medicine, Washington DC, he served an internship in St Louis, Missouri, before being called to military service at a hospital posting in Alabama, in America's Deep South. It was in Alabama that Coleman was the victim of a racially motivated assault at a petrol station, an incident that influenced his decision to move to the west coast, where he believed there was less racism. He made San Francisco his home, and the rough blue collar neighbourhood of Bayview Hunters Point his life. The area was subject of a recent film, Straight Outta Hunters Point, a social realist look at gang warfare on the tough side of the tracks.

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As his practice grew, so did Coleman's idea of how he should be treating his patients. People would often come to him with injuries that had been sustained at work. Coleman would treat the wounds but was frustrated by his inability to help these patients navigate the legal issues. So he went back to the books, attended night school, and graduated in law from Golden Gate University in San Francisco in 1956.

Extending his practice to legal advice—offered free as he never formally practised law—was not enough. Coleman also wanted to improve individual patient compliance. Patients needing laboratory tests or specialised treatment most often had to bus themselves all over San Francisco. Coleman wanted to bring those services to the neighbourhood. In 1960 he opened a two storey medical building with x ray and laboratory facilities, a pharmacy, and a staff that included a surgeon, dermatologist, obstetrician/gynaecologist, ophthalmologist, and dentist. The centre thrived until the early 1970s, when his specialists started disappearing to more lucrative practices and dwindling state medical reimbursements made it difficult for younger doctors to work in Hunters Point and make enough to promptly pay back student loans. He became a singlehanded practitioner again.

Coleman worked hard to boost opportunities for those at Hunters Point and minorities in general. He was the first chairman of the San Francisco Economic Opportunity Council, worked to increase voter registration and disease prevention awareness in his community, and was chairman of the board of the National Medical Fellowships, which awards grants to minority students and works to increase awareness for underserved populations. Coleman helped convince National Medical Fellowships to open a west coast office in San Francisco.

In 1998, after 50 years of serving the community, Coleman got his own parade. The street outside his building was shut down and Coleman rode for 10 blocks in a cable car, accompanied by well wishers, and horses and riders from the Black Cowboy Association.

He leaves a wife, Renee, and three children.

Arthur H Coleman, general practitioner San Francisco, California (b 1920; q Howard University College of Medicine, Washington DC, 1944), died from complications of lung cancer on 26 December 2002.

[Ken Howard]

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