Copyright The New York Times
Dr. D.M. French Dies at 86; Treated â€™60s Marchers
By DENNIS HEVESI
Published: April 5, 2011
Dr. David M. French, who helped found an organization of doctors that provided medical care to marchers during the civil rights era and who later organized health care programs in 20 African nations, died on Thursday in Charlottesville, Va. He was 86 and lived in Barboursville, Va.
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Dr. David M. French
The cause was a pulmonary embolism, his son Howard said.
A surgeon, Dr. French was an organizer of the Medical Committee for Human Rights and in March 1965 led more than 120 of its members in the third, and finally successful, attempt by voting-rights advocates to march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, the state capital.
Only a few committee members had been in Selma on March 7 when state troopers used billy clubs to beat back marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Two days later, a second march was stopped when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decided to obey a court order.
But after the injunction was lifted, hundreds of marchers completed the 51-mile trek, with Dr. Frenchâ€™s group providing care. The marchers were protected along the route by federal troops deployed, in part, in response to telegrams sent by Dr. French to Johnson administration officials.
In June 1966, as president of the medical committee, Dr. French organized another contingent that provided care to hundreds of marchers two days after James Meredith, the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi, was shot by a roadside sniper while on a march from Memphis to Jackson, Miss.
Guarded by state highway patrol officers, the marchers were not attacked along the 220-mile route, though some were beaten when they ventured from the main road. With little possibility of local medical care, they were treated by members of Dr. Frenchâ€™s team. Dr. French and his wife, Carolyn, used their Dodge camper as an ambulance. The Medical Committee for Human Rights became the ad hoc health arm for many protest movements.
In his 2009 book â€œThe Good Doctors,â€ John Dittmer wrote: â€œWherever there was a demonstration or confrontation, be it at the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma or on the Meredith March in the South, in Resurrection City with the Poor Peopleâ€™s Campaign, at Columbia University during the student rebellion, in the streets outside of Chicago outside the Democratic National Convention in 1969, or at Wounded Knee with the American Indian Movement, men and women in white coats and Red Cross armbands were on the scene, providing â€˜medical presenceâ€™ and assistance to the people who were putting themselves at risk.â€
David Marshall French was born in Toledo, Ohio, on May 30, 1924, to Joseph and Bertha Dickerson French. The family later moved to Columbus, Ohio.
Dr. Frenchâ€™s wife of 64 years, the former Carolyn Howard, died in 2009. Besides his son Howard, a former reporter for The New York Times, he is survived by four daughters, Lynn French, Mary Ann French, Bertha French and Dorothy Boone; three other sons, David Jr., Joseph and James; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Dr. French was a pre-med student at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland when he was drafted into the Army in World War II. Sent to a camp holding German prisoners of war in Abilene, Tex., he and other black soldiers were assigned to pick cotton to be used in uniforms. â€œIt was not lost on him that the German officers were better treated than he was,â€ his daughter Lynn said.
Under a military program, he was accepted by the Howard University School of Medicine, from which he graduated in 1948. Dr. French and his family later moved to Detroit, where he became active in the N.A.A.C.P.
In 1969, after earning a masterâ€™s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins, Dr. French was recruited by the Boston University Medical School to establish and lead its department of community medicine, which created a network of health centers in the city.
During a drought in Africa in the 1970s, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts asked Dr. French to tour the continentâ€™s Sahel region. As a result, he created and led Strengthening Health Delivery Systems, which has since trained thousands of health care workers in 20 West and Central African countries.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 6, 2011, on page B14 of the New York edition.