Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) was deeply saddened to learn of the loss of H. Jack Geiger, MD, M Sci Hyg, founding member and a past president of PHR, who passed away on Monday at the age of 95.
Geiger was a visionary advocate for health and rights in every decade since the 1950s and a trailblazer in the field of social medicine.
“Jack became a physician so that he could have a powerful set of tools to address inequality and injustices, and he used these to inspire a movement of physicians for human rights,” said Donna McKay, PHR executive director. “His prior experience as a medical reporter and editor gave him a clarion voice and amplified his messages. He seeded and inspired tens of thousands of activists in the United States and around the world.”
Geiger was a rabble-rouser from his teenage years in New York City, when he left home to hang out with writers and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, and onward. Over the course of his illustrious medical and public health career, Geiger focused on the social determinants of health: poverty, racial discrimination, and social inequalities that left people disenfranchised and sick.
Following his decades of leadership in the civil rights, anti-apartheid, and anti-nuclear movements, Geiger helped launch Physicians for Human Rights as a founding board member in 1986. He led or participated in numerous human rights investigations for PHR to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, to the former Yugoslavia during the Balkan Wars, to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan during and after the Gulf War, to South Africa to help document the history of medicine under apartheid, and in the United States, where he led a PHR study on race disparities in medical care. Geiger, together with his colleague Dr. Count Gibson, founded the first two community health centers in the United States, in the Mississippi Delta and Columbia Point, Boston, with the mission of serving low-income and minority patients. Today, based on that model, a network of 1,300 community health centers serves more than 28 million patients.
Geiger saw his mission as finding a way to fuse his civil rights activism and social justice with being a physician, what he described as “caring for patients, but not being restricted only to caring for patients and sending them back into political, social, and economic environments that guaranteed they would become sick again.”
For years, Geiger mesmerized medical students at PHR’s annual student conferences, instilling in them a commitment to individual patient care combined with what he called a “dual responsibility” to take actions that go beyond the individual to address the underlying social inequities that cause so much illness. His all-time iconic anecdote related his “Rx for Food” message, in which he and colleagues in Mississippi used government-granted pharmacy funds for groceries. In response to a federal investigation into the doctors’ actions, Geiger responded disarmingly, “Last time I looked it up in my medical books, the treatment for malnutrition is food.” The story never failed to elicit a standing ovation from packed medical school amphitheaters.
Beginning his career as a science journalist after he was blackballed from schools for being a troublemaker, Geiger would eventually receive his MD from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in 1958 and earn a degree in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. He spent time as a physician in South Africa, which led to his decades-long commitment to ending apartheid and its consequences, including as a leader of the Committee for Health in Southern Africa (CHISA). He also helped launch and lead Physicians for Social Responsibility in the 1980s, warning of the monstrous health consequences of nuclear war. He served as professor and chairman of Community Medicine at SUNY Stonybrook School of Medicine and Tufts University Medical School, and later served as visiting professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. His most recently held position was professor emeritus at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education in New York City.
“Jack Geiger inspired so many of us to work as physicians and to understand the social injustices and oppressive structures that lead to the poor health of the people we treat. He was a beacon in guiding us to fight these inequities,” said Michele Heisler, MD, MPH, PHR’s medical director.
Geiger “kindled a light of understanding in generations of health professionals – of our duty to address the causes of human suffering … using the power and authority of science, medicine, and public health to end poverty and discrimination, to address basic human needs, and to ensure education, economic opportunity, and access to health care for all,” said Vincent Iacopino, MD, PhD, former PHR medical director and long-time colleague of Geiger’s.
For his exceptional contributions, Geiger was honored with awards too numerous to list in their entirety. He was a member of the Institute of Medicine, and was a recipient of that organization’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 have created the H. Jack Geiger Congressional Fellowships on Health Disparities for young minority scholars. He was awarded public health’s most prestigious honor, the Frank A. Calderone Prize, for his foundational work demonstrating the inextricable links between human rights and health in a career spanning more than five decades. Accepting the award, Geiger said, “Our task is to aggressively use all the ways we can find to tell the public the facts we know about the causes and processes that link poverty and health and, in multiple ways, damage our society.”
“Jack battled oppression with medical and public health knowledge, his mighty pen, and a voice of gravity mixed with wit,” said Susannah Sirkin, PHR director of policy, who worked with Geiger for more than 30 years. “The world has lost a great leader in the struggle for human rights, but his voice will live on for generations of medical students and others who engage with his message to take action for what is morally right.”
Geiger was a physician activist and literally embodied what it means to be a physician for human rights. His legacy lives on in the network of thousands of health professionals who work with PHR and bring the tools of medicine and science to the pursuit of justice.