Ed. Note: For Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating women who have played significant roles in the health center movement. Also view our profiles of Janie Geer, Jessie Collins Trice and Carmela Castellano-Garcia.
At the age of 12, Marilyn Hughes Gaston had an experience that would determine the course of her professional life. She witnessed her mother, whom she describes as strong and fierce, almost bleed to death from cervical cancer. It had not been diagnosed because they could not afford health care. While she survived that scare, her mother eventually died at the early age of 56 because poor quality health care allowed the cancer to progress.
As a child, Dr. Gaston decided to become a physician and help end the inequalities in health care that caused her own mother’s needless suffering. This sense of purpose propelled Dr. Gaston to rise through the ranks of the U.S. Public Health Service, eventually becoming an Assistant Surgeon General and Rear Admiral – the second-only African American woman to do so at the time.
Founding a Community Health Center
Along the way, Dr. Gaston worked in multiple settings, including getting a start at Community Health Centers providing direct medical care to poor families. She helped to establish Lincoln Heights Health Center in Cincinnati, OH.
“As my training progressed, I knew I had to dedicate my career to helping poor Black communities obtain access to quality health care and improve their health outcomes,” says Dr. Gaston.
As both a pediatrician and a researcher, Dr. Gaston has made substantial contributions to the medical field’s understanding of illnesses affecting African American patients, particularly sickle cell disease, and helped to strengthen the health care systems for low-income patients.
Scientific breakthroughs in sickle cell research
While at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Gaston directed research that changed the nation’s approach to newborn testing. The research proved that the use of prophylactic penicillin treatment would prevent overwhelming infection and death in children under five with sickle cell disease and this led to widespread screening for sickle cell disease at birth.
Dr. Gaston’s outstanding career was capped by her leadership role in the U.S. Public Health Service. In 1990, she became the first African American woman to direct the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. There she managed a billion-dollar budget in support of getting quality health care to medically underserved, poor, and minority communities across the country and the world.
As a highly decorated physician with many national and international awards, including days and buildings named in her honor, Dr. Gaston says that one of her most cherished awards was being named an Honorary Soror from Alpha Kappa Alpha for her work.
A focus on health equity for Black women
Dr. Gaston coauthored a landmark book about the health issues facing Black women in middle age titled Prime Time: The African American Woman’s Guide to Midlife Health And Wellness, which became a bestseller.
To this day, she continues to focus on eliminating health disparities and lifting up her community. She, along with coauthor Dr. Gayle Porter (a clinical psychologist), jointly lead Gaston & Porter Health Center Improvement, Inc., and developed “Prime Time Sister Circles” for over 3,000 midlife Black women in several states around the country. In describing the urgency of this health intervention, Dr. Gaston says:
“Since our Black women in the United States are dying at rates greater than any other group of women, our goal is to help them change their lifestyle from habits of disease to habits of health and improve their health outcomes.”