by Dr. Elisabetta Zengaro
Communications Specialist, Division of Community Affairs

Former United States Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher encouraged audience members to consider the role of science in health equity as the fall 2022 Realizing the Dream Distinguished Lecturer, emphasizing that it is never too early to make a difference.

Realizing the Dream partner Stillman College hosted the lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 4, at the Stillman Stinson Auditorium. Satcher was the 16th Surgeon General of the United States and former Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. He is only the second person in history to hold both posts simultaneously.

As Realizing the Dream is a celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Satcher recalled his memories of hearing Dr. King speak while studying at Morehouse College.

“A group of us would always get together when we knew that Dr. King was going to be in town and he was going to be speaking, and we’d walk the five miles to hear Dr. King’s speech,” Satcher said. “It was a kind of experience that sort of penetrated you deeply in terms of believing that we shall overcome.”

Satcher then transitioned to his speech, inspired in part by Dr. King’s dream of equity when applied to public health. He discussed the role of science yesterday, today and tomorrow, as well as the government’s role in ensuring health equity.

“When I was director of the CDC … we focused on immunizing children against measles, mumps and rubella, and I think we saved a lot of lives by immunizing children,” Satcher said. “But it’s almost as if you start over again years later when people are questioning whether immunizations are safe, and so there were a lot of questions raised when this pandemic started.”

Satcher discussed the impact of the Tuskegee Study in trusting science and government as it related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s nothing wrong with science. The problem is the way we use it,” Satcher said. “We have to make a commitment to quality science carried out by committed people, so that people will not have to question whether or not the government is still doing the kind of things that were done in Tuskegee when almost 600 Black men were studied, but not treated for syphilis.”

Public health, as Satcher defined, is about “coming together, creating the conditions for people to be healthy.”

He shared the story of former Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry issuing the Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking and why Terry quit smoking right before the press conference on the report’s findings as an analogy for taking the initiative to create a healthy lifestyle.
“His argument was that it was never too late to quit, but by the same token, it is never too late to begin certain things in your life,” said Satcher.

Satcher concluded his remarks with a call to action, reminding the audience that everyone needs to create a better future for generations to come. Following the lecture, a brief question and answer session was held.