David M. French, a surgeon, teacher and civil rights advocate who helped care for the victims of violent opponents to civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, strengthened access to public health care in the U.S. and two dozen African countries and was one of America’s first Black board-certified surgeons died March 31. A former Howard University professor of pediatric surgery, he died from renal failure at a Virginia hospital. He was 86.
The health care provider and public servant organized first-aid efforts during major civil rights marches, including the historic –and bloody–voting rights march from Selma, Ala. to that state’s capitol in Montgomery in 1965 that was led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
During one Mississippi protest in 1966, French and his wife Carolyn Howard used their family van as an ambulance to provide first aid for casualties when the non-violent demonstrators were attacked by locals, including police, opposed to the civil rights march on the state capitol, according to a Washington Post obituary.
The Ohio native had earned a medical degree from Howard University while in the Army in 1948.
A board certified surgeon, French also earned a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University in 1969. He co-founded the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a civil rights organization dedicated to ending segregation in health care facilities.
He launched Boston University’s Department of Community Health soon after and established a cluster of community health centers there. In the 1970s, French, asked by then-Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) to tour Africa’s Sahel region, went on to organize the training of African doctors and other health-care workers and was instrumental in improving primary and preventive care in 20 western and central African countries, according to the New York Times.
He returned to the U.S. and settled in Barboursville, Va., but continued his work, serving as a medical administrator for at least two nonprofit organizations..
French is survived by four daughters, Lynn French, Mary Ann French, Bertha French and Dorothy Boone; four sons, Howard, David Jr., Joseph and James; 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
His wife died in 2009. They were married 63 years.
Read more about David French in the AFRO Black History Archives: