By Sharon Bingaman RN

Dr. Leonidas Berry

Dr. Leonidas Berry

Attempting to highlight a person or persons who stand out in the struggle to bring to the forefront the Courage and Brilliance of Black People in this country has been a challenge. The challenge exists because there are so many names to consider. And these are people who in the living of their lives daily showed grit and fortitude to just get through. As an African American in the United States, simply trying to get an education is a hurdle. For the African Americans who came out of Slavery, they knew that education was the path to a better life for their families and community. So, they were focused not only on improving themselves but worked to improve their communities and the world. We daily use their products or benefit from their inventions without knowing their names. One of those young, Black men was Leonidas Berry. His work with the gastroscope developed by Dr. Rudolph Schindler, led to his development of the Eder-Berry gastrobiopsy-scope which was the first direct vision scope used in studying the lining of the stomach of alcoholics. He was the first African American to present a paper to the American Medical Association. But these accomplishments may have been equaled or overshadowed by his Civil Rights work. He was destined for “firsts”.

Born in 1902 in North Carolina and raised in Norfolk, Virginia, the fact that his Great-grandparents had been slaves, made him aware that he had a duty to do well and give back to his community. There was no back-sliding here. Determination was in great supply in Dr. Berry’s family. Both his maternal and paternal grandparents worked hard and became farmers owning land. It took only three generations to have college graduates in the family as his parents met in college; his father becoming a minister in the AME (African American Episcopal) Church and his mother becoming a schoolteacher. We need to keep in mind that this occurred in the era of Jim Crow laws which were designed to strangle any attempts of advancements made by Black people.

After graduating from high school, he attended and graduated from Wilberforce University with his B.S. (Bachelor of Science) degree and then received a second B.S. from the University of Chicago in 1925. In 1929 he received his M.D. from Rush Medical College of the University of Chicago and he earned an M.S (Masters of Science) degree in pathology in 1933. Along his career path, Dr. Berry faced many obstacles while working to make life better for people. While at Rush Medical College, it was required that students do a period of three month observation in their clinical clerkship. But this was not open to Black students. However, he would not let that stand in his way and, on his own, found a program at a small, private, Black-run hospital. At Cook County Hospital in Chicago in 1931, he entered his residency and became the first African American to do so at that institution. In 1934 he became a junior attending physician in Gastroenterology at Provident Hospital which was the first Black owned and operated hospital in the country. In 1946 Dr. Berry became the first African American attending staff physician at Cook County Hospital in fifty years. While at Provident, he joined the staff at Michael Reese Hospital and began a 17 year battle fighting discrimination to be named to the attending staff. Each application made came back to him saying he was not qualified even though he had taught at both Cook County and Michael Reese. With each rejection, he kept on trying until in 1963 he finally was accepted as an attending. Now all of this was happening as his pioneering work with gastroscopy was going on. The focus of Dr. Berry’s work addressed the physical and social welfare of all peoples. To this end, he held many leadership positions in career and community posts so that he could be on the front lines to reach out to the most needy and forgotten which were Black People. He was teaching, writing, becoming world-famous and training others on how to use the new scope. One of his studies, was the first of its kind, showed that it was the liver and not the stomachs of alcoholics that were diseased.

In 1950, Dr. Berry set up the Council for Biomedical Careers which was geared to reach into the community with topics such as nursing, dentistry, medical technology, and pharmacy in order to encourage young, Black men to enter those fields. He also led an interracial and interfaith coalition in Chicago to rehabilitate young drug addicts. He worked with the state government to get funds for the “Berry Plan” which set up clinics for both the physical and psychological needs of the addict.

In 1969, Dr. Berry attended a conference in Cairo, Illinois discussing the non-existence of health care for Black people and knew he needed to do something more. He understood that even though segregation had ended, Black people were still not getting the medical treatment they needed and were entitled to. His evaluation of the problem was that significant discrimination and poverty leads to disproportionately high rates of sickness and death in the African American community. The following year with the support of his church and Civil Rights organizations, he gathered a group of medics, hired planes and flew the medics and supplies into Cairo to set up clinics around the city offering free health care. They called themselves the “Flying Black Medics”.

There are so many highlights and accomplishments in Dr. Berry’s life, so many accolades, not meant to make him look good but as a testimony to his compassion and concern to make the lives of others better. Go ahead and do some research on him and become familiar with his work. He is truly an inspiration. Spread the word to family and friends about the greatness of Black Americans and their contributions which have not been talked about. Dr. Berry’s autobiography, I Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ for My Journey , comes from a Negro Spiritual that means life on this earth is only a journey of success and joy, despite overwhelming hardships. The reward comes from the journey and the spirit of survival. He died in 1993 at the age of 93 leaving this world a better place than when he entered.


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