Louis Sullivan, M.D., recounted his decades of service to medicine to attendees of Health Journalism 2014 on Thursday at the Grand Hyatt in Denver.
In a conversation with Andrew Holtz, Sullivan touched on his experience as the only African American student in his Boston University School of Medicine class in the 1950s, the founding dean and president of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President George H. W. Bush.
“Racism is really such a complex thing,” he said. “There’s no easy way to define it,” Sullivan told Holtz when asked about the doctor’s upbringing in the segregated south.
“I think we’re a much better country now than we were 30 to 40 years ago,” he added.
He credited the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as some of the driving forces behind that positive change for African Americans.
Much of the conversation was dedicated to his time as secretary of Health and Human Services from 1989 to 1993 – particularly Sullivan’s experience at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
He said people didn’t trust the government and that the Reagan administration “didn’t do well in addressing the situation.”
“I knew many people looked upon the Bush administration as an extension of the Reagan administration,” Sullivan said.
Holtz brought up the former secretary’s speech at the 1990 International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco.
“When I was introduced, all hell broke loose,” Sullivan said.
According to a report from the Chicago Tribune from the time, AIDS activists “waved placards, blew whistles and sounded air horns to disrupt” his speech. They also threw objects at him.
The paper reports that the activists were protesting Sullivan’s speech over the Bush administration’s policy toward the HIV/AIDS crisis, which they viewed as too cautious.
“They simply did not trust us,” Sullivan said.
He said he was really angry after about 10 minutes of the continued protest and began to deliver his speech so that at least people watching on television and listening on the radio could hear his message.
“I wanted to have that conversation to try and establish a better relationship with AIDS groups,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also touched on his experience with the media when he was first being considered for the position within the Bush administration and his experience with the political culture of the administration itself.
He also mentioned his work on creating a National Health Museum in Atlanta. The museum, he said, would work to improve health literacy among Americans.
The former secretary fielded several questions from the audience before joining the opening night reception to sign copies of his new book “Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine.”