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Plain Talk: H. Jack Geiger made his mark on the world of medicine — after a start at the University of Wisconsin

Plain Talk: H. Jack Geiger made his mark on the world of medicine — after a start at the University of Wisconsin

H. Jack Geiger

H. Jack Geiger oral history interview conducted by John Dittmer in New York on March 16, 2013.

A lengthy obituary in the New York Times a few days ago recounting the remarkable life of a doctor named H. Jack Geiger caught my eye.

I have to admit I didn't recognize the name but wondered why the paper had devoted so much space to his life story. I quickly understood why, for Jack Geiger was an incredible human being, a champion of peace and social justice, a civil rights pioneer and an outspoken advocate to bring the benefits of medicine to the world's poor people.

He was the founder of two antiwar doctor groups that both went on to share the Nobel Peace Prize. Physicians for Social Responsibility won the award in 1985 while Physicians for Human Rights was so honored in 1997.

As the obit said, "Dr. Geiger was a leading proponent of 'social medicine,' the idea that doctors should use their expertise and moral authority not just to treat illness but also to change the conditions that made people sick in the first place: poverty, hunger, discrimination, joblessness and lack of education."

It continued that he was a cofounder of community health centers in South Boston and in Mound Bayou, in the Mississippi Delta.

"They provided desperately needed health care but also food, sanitation, education, jobs and social services — what Dr. Geiger called 'a road out' of poverty" the obit added. "The centers inspired a national network of clinics that now number more than 1,300 and serve about 28 million low-income patients at more than 9,000 sites."

Access Community Health here in Madison is one.

What really caught my attention, though, was a paragraph deep in the story that Jack Geiger, who came to study at the University of Wisconsin in 1941, had worked as a reporter at The Capital Times, covering the night police beat at the then-City Hall.

He was just 16 at the time. Because his brilliance allowed him to skip several grades in New York schools, he was able to gain admittance to the UW, actually before he turned 16. He had worked as a copy boy at a New York newspaper a year before and somehow was able to land the job at the paper to help him make ends meet.

Because Madison had a curfew for anyone under 18, he told the New York Times in an email before his death, “I am probably the only police reporter in history who had to get a special pass to be out at night.”

I searched the archives in 1941 to see if I could find anything he wrote, but it occurred to me that those were days when newspapers weren't generous handing out bylines, so probably most of the cop stories he wrote ran without his name.

But, I did find a feature story The Capital Times did on the wunderkind Jack Geiger.

"He hates to be called a 'boy genius' but Jack Geiger, 15, of New York city, one of the youngest students to enroll in this year's university freshman class, has already gained professional experience on a large New York daily, has written a novel, had an intelligence quotient average of 171 at the age of 11, and the vocabulary of a college graduate at the age of 14," the story began.

In 1943, after meeting James Farmer, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, Geiger started a chapter of the group in Madison. It was the height of World War II, and after turning 18 that year he left school and the paper to enlist in the Merchant Marine, which he chose because it was not racially segregated.

The Times' obit went on to note he was discharged in 1947, and then enrolled as a pre-med student at the University of Chicago.

"He discovered racial discrimination there — Black patients being excluded from certain hospitals, qualified Black students being rejected by the medical school. He fought the policies for three years and ultimately helped organize a 1,000-strong faculty and student protest strike — an activity virtually unheard of in that era," the obit read.

"He paid a price for his rabble-rousing," it continued. "The American Medical Association wrote to medical schools warning of his 'extracurricular activities.' No school would take him. He had, in effect, been blackballed."

He went back to journalism in 1947 and worked for the old International News Service (which later merged with United Press) for five years before finally getting admitted to Case Western Reserve Medical School in Cleveland in 1954. After becoming a physician, he became an icon with the civil rights movement in the '60s and then working to set up health clinics for the poor in the south.

He was 95 when he died a few weeks ago in his home in Brooklyn, a man who made an incredible mark on the world of medicine. And to think, he got his start at the UW and for a while covered the Madison police for this paper. An amazing and inspirational story.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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