School of Medicine alumnus leaves indelible legacy as national, international human-rights advocate

Case Western Reserve University alumnus H. Jack Geiger, MD (MED ’58, HON ’00), who used his medical training and experience to take on poverty, racism and the threat of nuclear destruction, was considered a pioneer in the development of community health centers across the United States.

He also made his mark internationally: Two advocacy groups he helped launch each won Nobel Peace Prizes.

Geiger died Dec. 28 at his home in Brooklyn, New York. He was 95.

“Jack spent his life on a mission to help the underserved worldwide—whether countering illness, malnutrition or health care access,” said Stan Gerson, interim dean of the School of Medicine, a Distinguished University Professor and longtime director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center. “While he spent only his medical school years with CWRU, he is known worldwide by our alumni for this life’s work.”

Among his countless and varied contributions, Geiger, in a 2016 interview for CWRU’s Think magazine, said he was most proud of having identified “what a powerful instrument medicine could be for social change; that the care of patients could be merged with a concern for population health.

“I saw this primarily as a matter of international health, and that’s what I decided to train for,” he said in the interview. “It is, in part, because of that experience, and Western Reserve (approving foreign travel), that in this country there are now effectively 9,000 community health centers supplying comprehensive primary care to 24 million people.”

That, and helping to found Physicians for Social Responsibility, the U.S. affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, and Physicians for Human Rights, a leader in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.

Early successes

Graduating from high school at 14, Geiger earned a pre-med degree from the University of Chicago, where he encountered significant anti-Black discrimination. While there, he organized a strike with more than a thousand faculty and students, protesting such issues as the exclusion of Black patients from certain hospitals and the rejection of qualified Black applicants to the medical school. 

For his “extracurricular” activities, he was blackballed by the American Medical Association and worked in journalism for several years, unable to gain entrance to medical school. As a copy editor and science journalist at The New York Times, he became active in efforts to use science in the service of human needs.

Advocating for the hungry and poor

Admitted in 1954 to what is now the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Geiger spent five months working in Pholela, South Africa, at a health clinic that also invested in other community improvements, such as latrines, vegetable gardens and feeding programs, with local employees helping his efforts succeed.

Graduating in 1958 with an MD degree, he trained in internal medicine on the Harvard Service of Boston City Hospital until 1964. In 1965, he organized medical care for the participants of the Selma-to-Montgomery march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Experiencing many similarities between the people of the South to the extreme poverty he had seen in South Africa, Geiger and two other doctors and set up a clinic in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The clinic was modeled after the one he championed in Pholela, to not only treat the sick but invest in food, sanitation, education, jobs and various other social, educational and economic services.

Writing controversial prescriptions for food paid out of the clinic’s pharmacy budget drew the displeasure of the state’s governor, to which he replied, “Yeah, well, the last time I looked in my medical textbooks, they said the specific therapy for malnutrition was food.”

“He solved the problems that needed to be solved and didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Marjorie Greenfield, MD, a professor at the School of Medicine and dean of medical school’s H. Jack Geiger Society, an academic society created in 2016. “He identified with people that historically have been underserved by our medical system and really felt a calling to care for them.”

Later, Geiger used medicine to not only take on poverty and racism, but also the threat of nuclear destruction. He co-authored one of the first articles to examine the medical costs of nuclear war. Published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1962, it convincingly described the humanitarian disaster that would occur in the event of a nuclear strike on Boston. Later, through his talk titled “The Bombing Run,” he stunned audiences in lectures offering detailed accounts of the effects a one-megaton nuclear bomb.

Geiger was Professor Emeritus at the CUNY School of Medicine in New York City where he had been a medical professor for many years. He was also a member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), United States National Academy of Sciences and the recipient of the IOM’s highest honor, the Lienhardt Award for outstanding contributions to minority health. 

In recognition of his work on racial and ethnic discrimination in health care, the Congressional Black, Hispanic and Asian American Caucuses created the H. Jack Geiger Congressional Fellowships on Health Disparities for young minority scholars.

Greenfield recalled his response when she visited Geiger and his wife, Nicole, at their Brooklyn home in 2016 to ask his permission to name the society after him.

“Jack wanted to know what the students were doing to make the world a better place,” she said, “and he wanted to inspire them to be true to their values and fight for what’s right.”