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First Black U.S. Pediatric Surgeon Honored – Dr. James F. Densler: An Agent of Medical Change in the South

First Black U. S. Pediatric Surgeon Honored
Dr. James F. Densler: An Agent of Medical Change in the South

By Lashley John

Monday, March 6th, 2022 was Dr. James F. Densler’s day in the City of Atlanta. An award that reflects the journey of a man who was determined to go above and beyond the accepted norms of the dominant society and forge a better route for his people.

The proclamation delivered by Atlanta Council’s Andrea Boone (District 10), not only serves as a testament to Dr. Densler’s transformation but also serves as a snapshot of Atlanta’s progress. On returning to Atlanta, Mr. Densler became part of the apparatus that helped integrate the city’s healthcare system. To enable Black physicians, numerous hospital systems had to be sued in court. “This is a remarkable man,” Boone said about Dr. Densler. “He had a pioneering career in medicine and did so while breaking down racial barriers. He is a shining example of perseverance and throughout his life, he has shown a commitment to service, including as a teacher and mentor to so many.”

Many medical practitioners fled the state during that time, but the first African-American pediatric surgeon was eager to join Dr. Clinton E. Warner, Jr. in bringing required changes that was already underway to the city health care options for minorities in the state.

Being a child of the south, he was not allowed to enter the university of his choosing, and as if by divine design, the one “chosen for him Meharry Medical College” in Nashville, Tennessee matched his determination and gave him wings, and he flew. He completed his residency and internship at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Staten Island, New York. He completed his fellowship in pediatric surgery at the United Hospitals of Newark, New Jersey. He also served in the U.S. Army.

Atlanta City Council recognized Dr. Densler for his service to the community and for bringing to the city a skill-set that was not generally available in the south. He was the first African-American pediatric physician in the nation when he graduated in 1968. He relocated to Atlanta after working as an intern in New York, bringing a set of skills to a region of the nation that had never received such specialized medical treatment from a Black doctor.

He worked for a short period in New York before moving to Atlanta in 1969, where he entered private practice in partnership with Dr. Clinton E. Warner, Jr. and Dr. Warner E. Meadows, the Atlanta Surgical
Professional Association, the first African-American incorporated group practice in Georgia. Their business was the second medical group to be incorporated in Georgia and the first Black-owned to achieve this status. In 1971, he was the first African-American to be accepted into the Surgical section of the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 1976, he was the second African-American to be certified in pediatric surgery. Dr. Densler was the first African-American pediatric surgeon in the City of Atlanta, and in 1980 he became the first pediatric physician to hold a position on the Fulton County Hospital Authority’s board for Northside Hospital.

In the early days as an African-American medical practitioner in the city of Atlanta, you could attend medical conferences in the city but were not allowed to eat lunch at the conference hotels.

Dr, Valarie Rice, at the podium, said that there is a common saying that it takes a village to raise a child, but at Morehouse, we all feel like we are part of Dr. Densler’s village. Even though he retired many years ago, he still drops in at Morehouse Medical School to teach. Dr. Densler was a member of the advisory board tasked with the formation of the Morehouse School of Medicine. He still finds time to share his wisdom. As Dr. Rice stated, “People who end up first don’t usually set out to be first; they set of to do something that they love, and when you’re doing things that you love, you’re at your best.”

When asked about his feelings on receiving the proclamation from the city, he stated, “I was delighted to be honored. It was great to see the many children that were there, and if the ceremony inspired or motivated a few of them, that would be great. Something that put in place a chance for a new direction, a chance to shift their consciousness, where they can realize a world of options, changes and other possibilities. I am concerned that the current generation may not understand the value of working hard or the ability to deliver.”

About Atlanta City Council

The Atlanta City Council is the chief policy-making body for the City of Atlanta. It acts by considering and enacting all laws that govern the City. The Council also approves the operating and capital budgets for the City as recommended by the mayor, and it continually monitors revenues and expenditures for local government operations. The Atlanta City Council reviews and has final say on many land-use and zoning matters. Major economic development projects for the City also fall under the Council’s consideration.

The Council is comprised of 12 districts and three at-large posts. Council representatives include: Council President: Doug Shipman; District 1: Jason Winston; District 2: Amir Farokhi; District 3: Byron Amos; District 4: Jason S. Dozier; District 5: Liliana Bakhtiari; District 6: Alex Wan; District 7: Howard Shook; District 8: Mary Norwood; District 9: Dustin Hillis; District 10: Andrea L. Boone; District 11: Marci Collier Overstreet; District 12: Antonio Lewis; Post 1 At-Large: Michael Julian Bond; Post 2 At-Large: Matt Westmoreland; and Post 3 At-Large: Keisha Sean Waites.


Dr. James F. Densler City of Atlanta Proclamation. Photo by Stephen R Dennis (Atlanta City Council Office of Communications)
Dr. James F. Densler City of Atlanta Proclamation. Photo by Stephen R Dennis (Atlanta City Council Office of Communications)

City Council (District 10) Andrea L. Boone presents Dr. James F. Densler with Proclamation and plaque. Photo by Stephen R Dennis (Atlanta City Council Office of Communications)
City Council (District 10) Andrea L. Boone presents Dr. James F. Densler with Proclamation and plaque. Photo by Stephen R Dennis (Atlanta City Council Office of Communications)

Mrs. Billye Aaron and others look on as City Council (District 10) Andrea L. Boone presents Dr. James F. Densler with Proclamation and plaque. Photo by Lashley John
Mrs. Billye Aaron and others look on as City Council (District 10) Andrea L. Boone presents Dr. James F. Densler with Proclamation and plaque. Photo by Lashley John

The Honorable Judge Brenda Hill Cole and Dr. James F. Densler. Photo by Lashley John
The Honorable Judge Brenda Hill Cole and Dr. James F. Densler. Photo by Lashley John

Last updated on March 10, 2023

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