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He cut through medicine's color line

(Clarification: A profile of Dr. Augustus White in Tuesday's Health/Science section had two different years for when the Delta Upsilon fraternity canceled its national convention to block White, the first African-American president of a DU chapter, from attending. The 1956 convention was canceled.)

Harvard Medical School students poke fun at their favorite professors every winter during a night of goofy skits and songs traditionally known as ''The Second Year Show." And as usual, Dr. Augustus White was easy pickings this year.

As students strutted on stage during the late-February performance, they crowded around a very dapper-looking Dr. White, played by classmate Christopher Bayne, and fawned over him. ''You're so-ooo intelligent," cooed one student, dressed in surgical scrubs. ''You're so-oooo sensitive," purred another. In unison, the students professed how they hoped to be just like him one day.

Though they were hamming it up for the crowd, the accolades were barely exaggerated. The first African-American to graduate from Stanford Medical School, ''Gus" White has quietly helped push back medicine's color line while becoming one of the foremost orthopedic surgeons in the world.

A noted author who founded Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's academic orthopedic program, White also has been a leading advocate for racial equality and cultural sensitivity training at Harvard, Brown University, his alma mater, and orthopedics on the national level.

In his current role as master of one of Harvard Medical School's five student societies, White has served as guidance counselor and father figure to hundreds of medical students. At 68, he still burns with the desire to help people and make the world a better place, say students, friends and colleagues.

His current passion: making sure Harvard Medical School produces ''culturally competent" physicians who are attuned to patients' cultural racial and sexual differences, as well as to healthcare disparities, and their own biases.

''Gus knows if he is successful at Harvard, this will have an impact far beyond the walls of the medical school," said Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, a former secretary of US Health and Human Services, and a longtime colleague.

Despite his imposing size -- 6 foot 5 inches -- and lofty achievements, White remains humble to the core, a leader who unfailingly shares credit, or passes it along to someone else, according to people who know him.

''When Dr. White gets a compliment, it seems like he's pretty good at changing the subject," said Bayne, the second-year student cast as White in the skit. ''If this were real life . . . he would have diverted the attention and changed the subject and said a joke that would have had us all laughing."

''Dr. White, in terms of his institutional position, is as powerful as it gets," said fourth-year student Will Polkinghorn. ''But when he speaks to you, he really respects you in a sincere way. My first year, my Mom came out to visit from Santa Monica. . . . He invites [her] into his office like she's the distinguished guest of the day. Literally, to this day, whenever I see Dr. White, the first thing he asks is, 'How's your Mom?' "

White's medical accomplishments began with the Vietnam War, during which he received a Bronze Star for bravery while treating soldiers during battle and patients in a leper colony.

While working toward his doctorate in Sweden, where he met and married his wife, Anita, White coauthored ''The Clinical Biomechanics of the Spine," which remains a standard reference book for orthopedists and chiropractors three decades after its publication. His other book, ''Your Aching Back," written for lay readers, is also a popular seller.

The former chief surgeon of Beth Israel's orthopedic department for 13 years, White ''had the fastest touch I have seen as an orthopedic surgeon," said Dr. Mark Bernhardt, one of 25 ''spine fellows" White trained. But his greatest skill lay in communicating with patients and putting them at ease. Peers say his gentleness and calm demeanor both in and out of the operating room was legendary, while his wife jokes that even she can't annoy her husband after 30 years of marriage.

Born in Tennessee, the son of a doctor and a librarian, White attended strong but segregated schools in the days before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

A standout football player at Brown, he decided to pledge the Delta Upsilon fraternity, the first African-American ever to do so. ''Cooler heads would have said, 'Gus, Gus, Gus. Why don't you take on more realizable tasks? Otherwise, you're going to have a lifetime of frustration,' " said his college friend, Barry Merkin, a professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. White pledged anyway, became a brother, and was so popular that by his senior year he was elected president.

''You meet him, and he's not the typically ambitious, overpowering persona who lights up a room," Merkin said. ''Rather, he's got a quiet, effective, competent manner that in some ways is more charismatic and more effective than the Hollywood version of what movers and shakers are like. He's [someone] who just quietly conquers the world."

But it hasn't always been easy. In 1956, DU officials chose to cancel their national convention rather that allow a black man, White, to attend.

No African-American had graduated from Stanford Medical School before White did in 1961. No African-American had been a surgical resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital before White arrived in 1963.

Even after he became a renowned physician, there were times when bigoted patients didn't want White to treat them, friends said.

But White remains an unfailing optimist. Sitting in his office at Harvard Medical School during a recent interview, he recounted the disturbing telegram he received in 1957 informing him that DU was canceling its national convention. Then he pointed to a plaque on his wall from 1986 that recognized him for speaking at the fraternity's national convention that year. It took three decades, but he finally got his invitation.

''You've got to be very keenly aware of the minuses, but the minuses don't bring a whole lot of joy," he said, explaining his outlook on life. ''But the pluses do bring joy. And, somehow, I have been fortunate in being able to see and focus on the best of everyone I meet."

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