An Indianapolis doctor is featured in a new documentary that highlights the history of an all-black hospital in St. Louis. Dr. Earle Robinson Jr.’s father was also a doctor – one of the first interns at the hospital. Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Jill Sheridan sat down with Robinson to talk about the impact and significance of that hospital – the Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis – ahead of the Indianapolis screening of the "Color of Medicine."
Jill Sheridan: What was this hospital?
Dr. Earle Robinson Jr.: My dad was a physician, before me, he was in the first group of interns at the Homer G. Phillips Hospital. The unique thing about the Homer Phillips hospital is that it was an all black hospital built for the black citizens of St. Louis back in 1937.
My dad and a group of interns that finished from Harriet Medical College in Nashville Tennessee didn't even know about Homer Phillips, they were on their way to Kansas City to a hospital there. When they changed trains in St. Louis, a red cap, these are the people that change bags on all the trains, they asked them where they were going.
They said, "well, we’re going to Kansas City. We’re doctors and we just finished medical school." And he said, "well, they just built a new colored hospital here."
They said ‘we’ll just stay here, no point going to Kansas City,’ because they’re paying the same and they were the first class of interns at Homer Hospital.
Sheridan: What do you think was the impact of having a hospital like that at the time?
Robinson: Well, if you go back historically, back in the 1930s there were only 25 black specialists in the whole United States. There were like 19,000 white so the discrepancy because of segregation and prejudice. Because there weren’t any training programs you couldn’t be a surgeon because there was nowhere to go. So because of this, this became one of the premiere training programs.
Sheridan: I would imagine that he inspired you, to become a doctor?
Robinson: Later on in life we moved to Evansville, Indiana. The house was half office and half house, so I was around medicine from the very time I was 5- or 6-years-old.
Sheridan: When we talk about health and race, it’s often something that we’re still talking about today.
Sheridan: The disparity of being able to access care, healthy outcomes – why is this story still important today.
Robinson: Well you have to realize, I go back to a time when this was so segregated, even after Homer Phillips opened, it was a segregated hospital. And when I went to medical school at Indiana University, from 1958 to 1963, hospitals were segregated. Blacks were in the basement at Methodist hospital, blacks were segregated at Wishard Hospital, blacks were segregated at IU’s hospital.
The only integration I saw was at Riley Hospital because they had a professor and chairman of the department named Professor Meeks who said "I don’t have any color barrier, all babies are the same."
Sheridan: When the Homer G. Phillips Hospital closed in 1979, was it the closing of an era?
Robinson: Oh it was a contentious closing because of the city, there was politics and financing, there was a lot of things and it was a sore spot with the city. That’s why it was so popular because of this film, the fact that this hospital had such an impact on the community and what blacks accomplished.
Sheridan: You talk about politics and the health care system…
Robinson: Still going on, right?
Sheridan: What lessons can we learn?
Robinson: One thing you have to realize, medicine is not for a few, it’s for everyone and health care should be universal. Everyone deserves to have health care.
The amount of money spent on health care could be drastically reduced if the costs weren’t so high. One of the main costs is pharmaceutical and the second is the technology. When the days I was practicing I could diagnosis what was happening in someone’s chest like pneumonia or heart problems with a stethoscope.
The documentary the "Color of Medicine" won a recent award from the International Black Film Festival. It will screen at the Indianapolis Central Library Friday, October 26th at 5pm and is free and open to the public.