When Dr. Will Ross was growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, he witnessed the shooting death of a Black teenage boy.
Ross, who was a young child at the time, said he wasn’t able to do anything but sit with the boy as he passed away.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Ross said. “All I could do was go to him, put my hands on him… because no one should die alone.”
This act of witnessing the violence inflicted upon his community drove Ross towards his future working in public health and health equity, though these things were hardly the buzzwords they are today.
Ross became Washington University’s inaugural Alumni Endowed Professor of Medicine Thursday, Nov. 11. His family and supporters packed the auditorium to watch him receive this honor and give a speech outlining his vision for academic health care’s role in advancing health equity. Ross stated that it is impossible to achieve health equity without diverse doctors, but more diverse students will be difficult to pull into the medical field if health equity is not worked towards at the community level.
“You cannot do one without the other,” Ross said. “This is all quite visionary, but I think it’s quite possible…if we all come to recognize the moral underpinnings of academic medicine.”
And he has decades of experience to back his ideas up. Before it was the commonly-accepted idea today, Ross taught about how factors such as race and class can influence health outcomes and how medical care needs to be responsive to the specific needs of underserved communities.
“Will has long been a moral compass for us here at Washington University,” Executive Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs and Dean of the School of Medicine David H. Perlmutter said. “We are an institution driven by science: he has found his voice as our clear-eyed conscience when it comes to the human element of public health.”
Dr. Ross, a nephrologist by training, has been at Washington University School of Medicine since 1996, after serving six years as Director of the Hemodialysis unit and then Vice President of Medical Affairs at the former St. Louis Regional Medical Center, a hospital renowned for its Black doctors that formed after the closure of Homer G. Phillips hospital.
Dr. Ross said he remembers a patient grabbing his hand and demanding something from him he hasn’t forgotten since at the Regional Medical Center. He said the woman told him, “Don’t forget who you are, don’t forget who we are, and make a difference when you go back to Washington University.”
In the more than 20 years he has spent at Wash U, Ross has since advocated for greater minority participation in the medical field as a critical part of improving health outcomes for patients of color.
This was a key point in Ross’s presentation after being presented with the Alumni Endowed Chair. He cited statistics from the Association of American Medical Colleges showing that the number of Black men beginning medical school each year has “not changed measurably” since 1980.
At Wash U’s medical school, however, the percentage of underrepresented applicants has gone up significantly since 2010, in large part due to Ross’ advocacy.
His work has not stayed inside the hospital or the academy, though. Ross was one of the co-founders of what is now known as the St. Louis American’s Your Health Matters section in 1996 as a community medical education effort.
He founded the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience to help underrepresented students in STEM before they even reach college and founded the Casa de Salud medical clinic and Saturday Neighborhood Health Clinics to help redesign local access to healthcare for the underserved.
Ross has worked on changing the organ donation systems to benefit Black recipients better and minimize organ rejection and completed a landmark 2008 study on community health needs in North County.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted health inequity in this city and globally, Ross has encouraged communities to “get behind” vaccination efforts. He’s been seen publicly advocating for vaccinations through Youtube public service announcements, work with the press, and collaboration with St. Louis’ government.
Throughout all his accomplishments, Ross has not forgotten his past. At the closing of his lecture, he remembered the young people he grew up with and those like them.
“A lot of the kids I grew up with are no longer here,” Ross said. “I want to dedicate this to them.”