David French; healed the sick from Roxbury to Africa

Copyright The Boston Globe

When Roxbury residents began planning in the mid-1960s to open a groundbreaking clinic, they wanted more than just good doctors.

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While creating the first comprehensive health center in the nation that would be under community control, Roxbury residents on a planning committee paid particular attention to the attitude each job candidate had about the clinic and the neighborhood. In Dr. David M. French, they found a skilled physician who had set aside a potentially lucrative career as a pediatric thoracic surgeon to focus on community medicine.

“I became aware of overwhelming health problems in the marches in the deep South,’’ he told the Globe in 1969, “but later realized that urban health problems with regard to delivery of services are just as difficult.’’

Dr. French, the first medical director of the Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center and the first chairman of what then was Boston University’s department of community medicine, died of renal failure Thursday in University Hospital in Charlottesville, Va. He was 86 and had been living in Barboursville, Va., in the ancestral home of his late wife.

His career at BU took him in the mid-1970s to Africa, where he ran a 20-country health program launched by institutions and organizations that included the university and the World Health Organization.

For the Roxbury residents, though, Dr. French’s medical and academic credentials made him an appealing candidate. He was fresh from a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he supplemented his medical degree from the College of Medicine at Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a master’s in public health.

He had also directed medical care for historic marches in the civil rights era, including one across Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. His daughter Lynn of Washington, D.C., said that for the James Meredith march from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., in 1966, Dr. French and his wife, Carolyn, used the family van as a de facto ambulance.

In 1969, when Dr. French arrived in Boston, the city was a few years from court-ordered busing to desegregate its public schools. He needed only to read the Globe headline heralding his arrival to know race drew public scrutiny: “Black Doctor to Head Health Center.’’

His jobs at the Roxbury clinic and as a professor at BU straddled the disparate worlds of academia and urban strife.

“A social contract is being established here between the community and a social establishment, Boston University Medical Center,’’ he told the Globe in June 1970. “There is suspicion on both sides.’’

Dr. French was a good choice to allay those fears, for reasons that went beyond his training and social justice background.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, he moved with his family to Columbus, the state capital, just before kindergarten. There were benefits, he believed, to growing up far from what he saw as the pretentiousness of the East.

“He would tell you in all seriousness that people from the Midwest are the best people in the world,’’ his daughter said, “and of those best people of the world, the crème de la crème are from Ohio.’’

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Dr. French’s father attended Howard University, but dropped out for financial reasons during the Great Depression. Though he landed a secure job with the US Postal Service, he and his wife emphasized education for their sons, David and Joseph, who both became physicians.

As a child, Dr. French was a talented violinist, but he wanted to pursue medicine. For two years he attended what was then Western Reserve University in Cleveland, until he was drafted by the US Army, which sent him to medical school at Howard.

While there, he met Carolyn Howard. They married in December 1945, and he graduated from medical school in 1948.

During postgraduate training, he was chief surgical resident at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington and practiced in Detroit before returning to teach at Howard. He established a division of pediatric surgery at Freedmen’s while becoming involved in the civil rights movement.

As a founding member of the national Medical Committee for Human Rights, Dr. French decided that working as a surgeon would not satisfy his need to focus on social justice, so he returned to school for a master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins, graduating in 1969.

In the early 1970s, he was part of a group that US Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts sent on a study mission to Southeast Asia. The group reported on the destruction by US bombing of schools, homes, and hospitals in North Vietnam and on the burgeoning refugee crisis.

When he directed the multi-country health program in Africa, Dr. French lived with his family for several years in the Ivory Coast. Nominally retired after returning to the United States in 1986, he went on to work on medical matters for Helen Keller International, a nonprofit in New York that works on health issues worldwide, and for the service and development branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Like few people I have known, our father was restless,’’ his son Howard of New York City said at a family graveside service where Dr. French was buried next to his late wife, who died two years ago, in the family cemetery in Barboursville.

“He was hungry for growth, insatiable even, and he had the unfailing courage to pursue this instinct wherever it led him. But what was most remarkable to me was his generosity of spirit. This was a man who lived a life of urgency, but never an urgency in the service of self, but rather in the service of the society, of mankind, of others. . . . Here was a man never overly impressed with his own achievements, however great; never once in my memory given to boasting.’’

In addition to his daughter and son, Dr. French leaves three other daughters, Mary Ann of Barboursville, Dorothy French Boone of San Antonio, and Bertha of Amsterdam; three other sons, David Jr. of Barboursville, Joseph of Oakland and James of Johannesburg; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. April 26 in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

Having lived in Ohio and Boston, Detroit and Newton, Washington and Africa, Dr. French was an astute observer of how people view outsiders who arrive with good intentions.

“I think we’re perceived here as Americans first, blacks second,’’ he told The Los Angeles Times in 1979, while directing the health program in Africa.

“When I first visited Africa eight or 10 years ago, I had the feeling there was some disdain on the part of Africans toward black Americans. We were suspect, first, because we ended up in the United States in the first place and, second, because we put up with all we did for 300 years. Now, I get the impression that Africans are asking themselves, ‘Where are the most educated, prosperous, technically trained blacks in the world?’ Well, they’re in the United States. And the Africans are saying, ‘If you’ve got something to offer, come on over and join us.’ ’’

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