At the age of 12, Marilyn Hughes Gaston had an experience that would determine the course of her professional life. She witnessed her mother, whom she describes as strong and fierce, almost bleed to death from a cervical cancer that had progressed untreated because they could not afford health care.
Then and there, Marilyn Gaston decided to become a physician, determined to play a role in ending the inequalities in health care that caused her own mother needless suffering. This sense of purpose propelled Dr. Marilyn Gaston to rise through the ranks of the U.S. Public Health Service, eventually becoming an Assistant Surgeon General and Rear Admiral.
Along the way, Dr. Gaston worked in multiple settings, including getting her start in Community Health Centers providing direct medical care to poor families. Dr. Gaston helped to establish Lincoln Heights Health Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“As my training progressed, I knew I had to dedicate my career to helping poor Black communities to obtain access to quality health care and improve their health outcomes,” says Dr. Gaston.
“As my training progressed, I knew I had to dedicate my career to helping poor Black communities to obtain access to quality health care and improve their health outcomes.”
As both a pediatrician and a researcher, Dr. Gaston has made huge contributions the medical field’s understanding of illnesses affecting African American patients, particularly sickle-cell disease, and helped to strengthen the health care systems for patients with low incomes.
While at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Gaston directed research that changed the nation’s approach to newborn testing. The research proved that the use of prophylactic penicillin treatment would prevent overwhelming infection and death in children under five with sickle cell disease and led to widespread screening for SCD at birth.
Dr. Gaston’s career of achievements was capped by her top leadership role in the U.S. Public Health Service. In 1990, Dr. Gaston became first African American woman to run the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. There she directed a billion-dollar budget in support of getting quality health care to medically underserved, poor, minority communities across the country and the world.
As a highly decorated woman with many national and international awards, including days and buildings named in her honor, Dr. Gaston says that one of her most cherished awards was being named an Honorary Soror from Alpha Kappa Alpha for her work.
To this day, Dr. Gaston continues to focus on eliminating health disparities and lifting up her community. She coauthored a landmark book about the health issues facing Black women in middle age, “Prime Time: The African American Woman’s Guide to Midlife Health And Wellness.” The book became a bestseller, and Dr. Gaston, with coauthor Dr. Gayle Porter (a clinical psychologist), have developed “Prime Time Sister Circles” for over 3,000 midlife Black women in several states around the country. Dr. Gaston describes the urgency of this health intervention:
“Since our Black women in the United States are dying at rates greater than any other group of women, our goal is to help them change their lifestyle from habits of disease to habits of health and improve their health outcomes.”
Related: Learn about other African American pioneers in the Health Center Movement.