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In Memoriam: The Passing of Civil Rights Activist, Co-Founder of Community Health Center Movement, H. Jack Geiger, MD  

Dr. H. Jack Geiger & John Hatch

Jack Geiger, MD, one of the foremost leaders in the struggle for equality, social justice, and human rights nationally, died December 28 in New York City. He is broadly recognized as the father of the community-based health center model of care in the United States. He founded and directed the nation’s first urban and rural Community Health Centers at Columbia Point, Boston and Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1965  – inspiring the growth of the Community Health Center Program, which today serves 30 million people in more than 14,000 medically underserved communities located in every state, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Territories.

Dr. Geiger’s life and professional career are testaments to his determination to improve the quality of life of people suffering from poor health, poverty, and discrimination.   Early in his career, he promoted and led campaigns to end discrimination in-hospital care and admission to medical schools.  That effort extended to the civil rights movement in the 1960s when, as part of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, he organized medical students to provide care to civil rights workers protesting discrimination throughout the South.

Tom Van Coverden, President and CEO of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), noted, “Tributes will never adequately express the impact of Jack Geiger’s work on the lives of millions of Americans who benefit from his efforts today.  He was a leader and visionary who believed in the dignity and worth of every individual. With his community-based model of care, he called on government leaders and the medical profession to focus not just on delivering care, but to address the factors that influence overall health, such as poverty, homelessness, and lack of education.”

Thanks to Dr. Geiger, health centers today have become the largest primary care network in the nation, meriting bipartisan support from Presidents and Members of Congress. They remain a  proven platform from which to improve the American health care delivery system.    Health center patients include low-income families, the uninsured, agricultural workers, and many high-risk and vulnerable populations. Nearly 70 percent of health center patients live below the poverty level and two-thirds are members of racial and ethnic minorities. Moreover, during the COVID-19 crisis, health centers have stood at the forefront of providing testing – offering treatment and care in hard-hit minority communities and populations that have suffered disproportionately. As America embarks on a massive COVID vaccination campaign health centers have the trained workforce and community trust necessary to play an active role in ensuring that children, the elderly, and all workers are protected.

Dan Hawkins, former Policy Director for NACHC, added, “Throughout Jack’s many years as teacher and mentor, his noble deeds and compassion inspired young people to pursue careers in the health professions with the purpose and mission to serve humanity in areas of greatest need.  We will miss him dearly, but his work will live on in the legacy of the Community Health Centers Program.”

Dr. Geiger was also a founding member and past president of the Physicians for Human Rights (which received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1998) and Physicians for Social Responsibility.  He used his scientific knowledge and the collective voices of these organizations to raise awareness about the humanitarian issues and concerns that impact health on a global scale.  He regularly lectured and authored extensive writings on the medical and biological effects of nuclear weapons.  In his work, he also brought to light human rights abuses – leading missions into Bosnia, Iraq and Kurdistan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Central America and other parts of the world.

He earned high honors for his selfless dedication to his profession and advocacy for minority populations and the medically underserved throughout the country and the world.  He was elected to Senior Membership in the Institute of Medicine and is the recipient of its highest honor, the Gustave O. Lienhard Award for contributions to minority health.   He is also the recipient of the American Public Health Association’s Sedgewick Memorial Medal for Distinguished Service in Public Health and NACHC’s Distinguished Public Service Award, among other countless awards and honorary degrees.

Dr. Geiger received his MD from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and held a degree in epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health. He served as the Arthur C. Logan Professor Emeritus of Community Medicine at the City University of New York Medical School.

Photo credit: Dr. Geiger and Dr. John Hatch during the construction of the Tufts-Delta Health Center.