Dr. Frank Richards, who built a reputation as one of the most proficient surgeons ever to don a mask because of his ability to operate with one hand while holding instruments in the other, died Thursday.
“No one could do that but Frank,” said Will Ross, M.D., associate dean for diversity and associate professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. “When he was assistant director of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, he really had to move patients in and out; it was a high-volume operation.”
“He was the Jackie Robinson of the surgical profession,” Dr. Ross added. “He was the best in his field.”
Dr. Richards had lived in St. Louis since arriving here for his medical internship in 1947 until moving to Boston three years ago to be near family. He died at a care facility in Boston on Feb. 20, following a long illness. He was 90.
His surgical skills were matched only by his modesty. He insisted that no services be held. “I don’t want a big deal,” his family said he firmly asserted.
But those who knew him recall his life as a very big deal. Dr. Richards, who was black, became a renowned surgeon at a time when most African Americans did not finish high school and he quietly accumulated a significant number of “firsts.”
Tip of the spear
Dr. Richards was the first African American to become a member of the St. Louis Surgical Society; he eventually became the group’s first African-American president. He was the first black surgeon at DePaul and St. Luke’s hospitals, and was among the first on staff at Washington University School of Medicine.
“He was sort of the tip of the spear for the civil rights era and equality in medicine,” said his son, Frank O. Richards Jr., M.D., of Atlanta. “He had to show he had the right stuff.”
After completing his residency in 1952, Dr. Richards received a commission as a captain in the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps. As the base surgeon with the 36th Tactical Reconnaissance Base Hospital in Bitburg, Germany, he treated white patients.
His family recalled the story he told about the base commander’s wife, a southerner, who was reluctant to have him perform surgery on her. The commander reportedly said his wife had no choice. “I operated on her and she turned out to be the most grateful person,” his family recalled Dr. Richards saying.
And so it was throughout his life.
“He did not belabor the hostility he encountered,” Dr. Ross said.
He proudly honed his skills at the segregated Homer Phillips Hospital, which became the premiere training ground for black doctors from across the world.
“Medicine is a very gratifying profession; (and) if you’re in it because you want to be a doctor, because you want to help people, I don’t think there is any field that is more gratifying,” Dr. Richards said in the 1999 book, Lift Every Voice and Sing: St. Louis African Americans in the Twentieth Century.
In one of the chapters he penned for the book A Century of Black Surgeons: The USA Experience, published in 1987, he chronicled the conditions that ushered in Homer Phillips as a replacement for City Hospital No. 2. The public hospital for blacks had become an over-crowded fire hazard.
“(A black attorney named David M.) Grant secretly photographed the conditions, and pictures also were taken at the St. Louis Zoo to show that conditions at the hospital were no better," Richards told the St. Louis Beacon in 2009.
The turning point came when a black physician, Dr. Bernice A. Yancey, was electrocuted by a defective X-ray machine. It was clear, he wrote, that City Hospital No. 2 "could no longer accommodate (patients) in a manner befitting the dignity of human beings, nor could it provide for the safety of those who were there to work and to learn."
Dr. Richards worked to ensure that the pioneers of better health care and medical training for African Americans would not be lost to history. Ten years after his book contributions, he worked with Dr. Ross to create the Homer G. Phillips Public Health Lecture Series at Washington University.
“‘I’m an old geezer and won’t be around long,’” Dr. Ross said, “‘and we need a way for people to access these stories.’” Later, his became the most prominent voice in "A Jewel in History: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital for Coloreds," a documentary produced by Mukulla Godwin, a former psychiatric nurse at San Francisco General Hospital.
He sought to preserve the past, while relishing the future. He was acknowledged as a master teacher who delighted in helping prepare coming generations of surgeons, particularly African Americans.
“He would beam when he had a student at his side in the OR,” Dr. Ross said.
Milk the cow
Frank Oliver Richards was born in Asheville, N.C., on Nov. 24, 1923, the younger of George Richards and the former Altona Maywood (Mae) Mitchell’s two children. His mother was a kindergarten teacher; his father owned a grocery store and was a barber in an Asheville hotel. His parents died shortly after he graduated from Stephens-Lee High School.
With the help of his aunt and uncle, Mae and Dr. Fred Richards, he entered Talladega College in Alabama, where he earned an A.B. 1944. He received his medical degree from Howard University School of Medicine. In 1948, he married Ruth Allen Gordon, a future social worker whom he’d met at Talladega. They moved to St. Louis for Dr. Richards’ internship and surgical residency at Homer Phillips.
After completing military service in 1954, Dr. Richards and his family, which now included a daughter and a son, returned to St. Louis, where he entered private practice in general surgery. He shared an office with the late John Gladney, M.D., a friend with whom he had once worked in the Talladega shipyards when both were teenagers.
He was affiliated with Washington University School of Medicine, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, DePaul, St. Luke's, St. Louis Children's and Deaconess hospitals. He was a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and published four peer-reviewed research articles that focused on wound healing and abdominal surgery.
Dr. Richards was a member of Sigma Pi Phi (Eta Boulé) and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternities, and All Saints Episcopal Church in St. Louis. He golfed, played tennis and liked scuba diving and camping. He frequented the University City Symphony Orchestra and had a penchant for sports cars: a Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro and a Triumph had once graced his driveway.
His son joked that his legacy includes two phrases that will live on to annoy his grandchildren: “This is really wonderful, but next time, do better,” he’d say to any accomplishment, and “You must milk the cow each and every day,” his way of saying strive daily for success.
Dr. Richards was preceded in death by his parents and two half-siblings, Fred Richards, M.D., and Mae Richards.
In addition to his wife of 65 years and his son, Frank Jr. (Sherri), Dr. Richards’ survivors include a daughter, Susan Corliss Richards (Gordon Bannister), of Boston; his sister, Miriam Moriniere, of Philadelphia, and two granddaughters, Alexandra and Lauren Richards.
Remembrances would be appreciated to the Dr. Frank O. Richards Medical Student Scholarship Prize. Checks should be made payable to: Washington University Frank O. Richards Sr. Prize, and sent to Washington University, Attention: Pamela Morris, 7425 Forsyth Blvd., Campus Box 1247, St. Louis, Mo. 63105.