No Small contribution – doctor helped community

Physician helped open Panthers’ first free clinic,
 focusing on sickle cell anemia for research

CECILY BURT / Oakland Tribune 8 Oct. 2006

Dr Tolbert Small was a volunteer physician at the Black Panther Party’s George Jackson Medical Clinic and one of the founders of the BPP’s Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation. He continues his efforts to provide medical care for the low income community through his Harriet Tubman Medial Clinic in East Oakland. Read Dr. Small’s speech to the 16 April 2005 Li ‘l Bobby Hutton Day celebration at the West Oakland Public Library. 

OAKLAND — After Tolbert Small graduated from Wayne State University medical college in Detroit, he headed West in 1968 to serve an internship at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Not long after that he swung by the Black Panther Party headquarters on Grove Street in West Oakland to offer his medical services.
sAt Bobby Seale’s urging, he helped open the Black Panthers’ first free health clinic on Adeline Street in Berkeley, where he worked three days a week, recruited doctors and volunteers, and somehow convinced those who could to provide lab tests, medicines and equipment.

The clinics offered free testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and an optometrist made glasses for free. Eventually 11 Black Panther clinics around the country offered free services to poor black communities.

In 1970, Small became medical director of the party’s Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, where he toiled locally to establish testing stations and lobbied nationally to raise political consciousness about the genetic disease that strikes 1 in 400 blacks. People might assume he was a member of the Black Panther Party, given all the time he spent with them. But Small was like many others who worked behind the scenes to bring to life the torrent of positive ideas that flowed from party leaders to serve the needs of the people, such as free breakfasts for school children, groceries for poor families, senior escorts and free medical care.

Those volunteers might not have believed in everything the organization did, but supported its positive contributions. As Small figures it, almost every charitable organization is “70 percent good, 30 percent bad.”

Small, now 64, still believes in taking his services to the community. He works daily at the Harriet Tubman Medical Clinic in East Oakland, which he founded with his wife Anola Price Small in 1980.

“I think my politics were formed before my involvement in the Black Panthers Party, but it was because of my beliefs in basic education, health care, humanity, that I got involved. Otherwise I would have been out like most physicians trying to make a buck,” he said.

Small got involved even before he came West. In 1961 he “raised hell and high water” when he co-founded the student chapter of the NAACP at the University of Detroit. He helped raise money for Mississippi freedom workers as a member of Friends of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee). He spent a week at the 1964 Democratic Convention trying to get the Democrats to recognize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

In Oakland, Small hooked up with Oakland Direct Action Committee, headed by civil rights activist Mark Comfort, who introduced Bobby Seale and Huey Newton to the Black Panthers emblem used by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama.

One day in 1970, Small told his friend Comfort that he planned to offer his medical services to the party.

“I left my phone number with June Hilliard; the next day the FBI called Dr. Nelson (Small’s boss at Highland Hospital), and told them I was working for the Black Panthers Party,” Small recalled with a smile. “But they called David Nelson, the wrong Dr. Nelson.”
His service to the Black Panthers lasted four years. He made house calls on both sides of San Francisco Bay and visited party members imprisoned at San Quentin and Folsom State prisons.

All that while he worked in the West Oakland Medical Center, served as part-time emergency room doctor and ran a drug detox center for Operation Reach.

It was during that time that Seale seized on the need to muster public attention to sickle cell anemia, an excruciatingly painful disease that almost exclusively strikes the black population. Seale and others were outraged by the racial inequities between funding and testing for sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis.

In 1967, volunteer organizations had raised $1.9 million for cystic fibrosis research, a primarily white disease that strikes 1 in 2,940 people, compared to less than $50,000 for sickle cell anemia, a primarily black disease that strikes 1 in 400 people.

“There were no national sickle cell organizations,” Small said. “Basically, for 100 years after the Civil War, every African-American disease was neglected.”

Dr. Elliott Vichinksy, director of hematology and oncology at the California Sickle Cell Center at Children’s Hospital and Research Center, Oakland, said strides made over the past four decades to identify, treat and fund research on sickle cell disease would not have happened if not for the efforts of a few doctors such as Small and the foresight of the Black Panthers to select it as one of its platforms.

“The thing I admire most about Dr. Small, throughout his life he remained an advocate, and he absorbed all the most difficult sickle cell patients with almost no reimbursement,” Vichinsky said. “I could never get another doctor to show that kind of commitment. He’s a tremendous role model.”

source: 8oct2006