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Marilyn Hughes Gaston, M.D.

photo of Marilyn Gaston

A Maryland resident since 1976, Marilyn Hughes Gaston, M.D., has dedicated her career to improving medical care for poor and minority families and to the promotion of health care equality for all Americans. Dr. Gaston is internationally recognized for her leadership in combating sickle cell disease and changes in management of children with this illness that have significantly decreased suffering and mortality in the world, including Maryland.

By the time she was 9 years old, Dr. Gaston knew she wanted to be a doctor. When she was 13 her mother collapsed at home, bleeding profusely from what was later determined to be cervical cancer. The family had no health insurance and no car to reach the medical help that was miles away. Her mother survived, but that event served as a driving force in her dedication to ensuring that the poor, minorities and the undeserved and uninsured are provided quality health care.

Because she was poor and black, Dr. Gaston was advised against pursuing her dream of being a doctor. Undeterred, she initially studied zoology at Miami University in Ohio and then enrolled at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where she was one of only six women and the only African American woman in her class. She earned her medical degree in pediatrics in 1964.

After earning her degree, Dr. Gaston rejected an offer to practice medicine in a middle-class neighborhood in Cincinnati, instead choosing to help establish a community health center in the low-income neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, Ohio. In recognition of her dedication, Lincoln Heights and Cincinnati established a day in her honor. In addition, the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine selects two disadvantaged students annually to receive full four-year scholarships called Gaston Scholars.

In 1986, while working at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Gaston published the results of a sickle cell disease study that led to a nationwide screening program to test newborns for immediate treatment. One of the most significant conclusions of her study was that the complications of sickle cell disease could be avoided with early treatment, a life-saving practice that became a central policy of the U.S. Public Health Service. The study resulted in congressional legislation to encourage and fund sickle cell disease screening programs nationwide. Less than a year later, 40 states had begun such programs, including Maryland.

In 1990, Dr. Gaston became director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Service Administration. She was the first African American woman to direct a major public health service bureau and only the second African American woman to achieve the position of assistant surgeon general and the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service. As director, she focused on improving health care services to undeserved, uninsured and disadvantaged families. Under her direction, significant expansion of community health centers, migrant health centers, and the National Health Service Corps occurred. Maryland was among the states to receive significant benefits from the programs.

Dr. Gaston is a member of the Montgomery County African American Health Program Advisory Committee and a faculty member of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She is also a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. She is currently the co-director of the Gaston and Porter Health Improvement Center in Potomac, a nonprofit service organization whose vision is to help close the gap of health disparities despite race, ethnicity, gender, culture and socioeconomic status.

She has received numerous awards and recognitions that include two honorary doctor of science degrees, one from the University of Pennsylvania and the other from Dartmouth University; an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; the National Medical Association's Scroll of Merit, the organization's highest honor; and the Dr. Nathan Davis Award from the American Medical Association. She is also a member of Ohio Women's Hall of Fame.

Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2006.

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