The defining moment in Dr. David Satcher’s life occurred when he was 2. It was then, as a toddler dying of whooping cough, that he first encountered the powerful lessons of race, community and disease prevention that have shaped his scientific career.
Neighbors had gathered on the front porch of the Satchers’ ramshackle, four-room wooden farmhouse. A black doctor arrived; no white physician would have ventured such a visit in rural, segregated Alabama.
“I remember the doctor telling my mother that he wouldn’t live until the next day,” recalled Lottie Washington, Satcher’s eldest sister. But he did live. And as the story of his survival wove itself into family lore, this son of a homemaker and foundry worker who never finished elementary school made a decision about his future.
“He had it in his mind,” Washington said, “that he wanted to be a doctor.”
Friday, President Clinton named Satcher, 56, to become the nation’s top doctor, the surgeon general. At a ceremony in the White House Oval Room, the president credited Satcher, currently the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, with helping the nation make strides against AIDS and teenage smoking, as well as improving childhood immunization rates.
“No one is better qualified to be America’s doctor,” Clinton said.
If confirmed, Satcher would also become assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, a job with more policy-making authority but less cachet than that of surgeon general, which he described as “the job of a lifetime.”
“I want to be the surgeon general who reaches our citizens with cutting-edge technology and plain, old-fashioned straight talk,” Satcher said. “Whether talking about smoking or poor diets, I want to send messages of good health to our cities and suburbs, our barrios and reservations, and even our prisons.”
While it may be the job of a lifetime, it is also a job fraught with political dangers. The last surgeon general, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, was fired in 1994 amid outrage over her remarks on masturbation. Dr. Henry Foster, an obstetrician, failed to win Senate confirmation because he had performed abortions. Even the popular Dr. C. Everett Koop ran into trouble, angering conservatives by mailing leaflets about AIDS to every American home.
Those who know Satcher well say that if anyone can sidestep such land mines, he can. He is a cautious man who chooses his words carefully. In recent months, as his name was floated as the leading candidate for surgeon general, he has declined all interviews.
He has testified frequently before Congress, taking pains to carve out relationships there. Already, that seems to have paid off. Friday, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who as the only physician in the Senate will play an influential role in the confirmation process, praised Satcher for his “truly distinguished record in promoting public health.”
What little criticism Satcher has provoked at CDC has rarely been personal. Recently, the advocacy group Public Citizen complained that the agency was conducting unethical experiments on HIV-infected pregnant women in Africa. The women are not receiving drugs that could prevent transmission of the virus to their babies.
Satcher has defended the experiments, saying the drugs are not standard therapy in Africa. Despite his group’s criticism, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, the head of Public Citizen, endorsed Satcher Friday, calling him “one of the smartest and most ethical people I have ever met.”