This past January, as part of her acceptance speech after receiving a special HHS Secretary’s Award for her exceptional accomplishments in the field of minority health, Mary Starke Harper, PhD, DSc, RN, FAAN, remarked that she “left home against the will of my parents who thought that instead of going to college I should take a job as a housekeeper.” Not only did she go to college, she became one of the nursing profession’s most respected leaders, educators, researchers, federal health policymakers and minority health advocates. Dr. Harper passed away on July 27 at the age of 86.
Her more than 60-year career included leadership positions at the National Institute of Mental Health, where she served as an advisor to four U.S. presidents and initiated the National Research and Development Mental Health Centers for minority populations. She also helped implement the NIH’s National Fellowship Program, which has enabled thousands of minority scientists to obtain advanced degrees. From 1979 to 1981, she was director of the White House Conference on Aging’s Office of Policy Development and Research. She was a founding member of the National Black Nurses Association and the first project officer of the American Nurses Association’s Minority Fellowship Program.
Born and raised in Alabama, Dr. Harper earned a nursing diploma from Tuskegee University in 1941, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota in the 1950s and a dual doctorate from St. Louis University in 1962. Early in her career, she was director of nursing education at the Tuskegee VA hospital and also held clinical, education and research positions at VA hospitals in other parts of the country. Her unwitting participation in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the 1940s led her to become an advocate who fought for better health care for minorities–especially geriatric and psychiatric patients–as well as more ethical research policies.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Emory University nursing researcher Ora L. Strickland, PhD, RN, FAAN, remembered Dr. Harper as “the first to shine a light on the health disparities of racial and ethnic minorities and the fact that we weren’t doing a good job with elderly people. She has had an indelible effect on health care and research in this nation, not only for racial and ethnic minorities, but for everyone.”
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