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In Memoriam: Dr. Aaron Shirley 1933-2014

Published on Thursday, January 15, 2015

By: Gary Pettus at 601-815-9266 or gpettus@umc.edu.

Published on January 15, 2015

Dr. Aaron Shirley, the first African-American resident at UMMC and a Gandhi-like figure for many in the state, died on Nov. 27, 2014. He was 81. 

A graduate of Lanier High School and Tougaloo College in Jackson and Nashville's Meharry Medical School, the Gluckstadt native started a general practice in 1960 in Vicksburg, where he was barred from practicing medicine in the white-run hospitals.

In Jackson, Shirley had grown up in that same climate of separate facilities and water fountains for blacks and whites. "I didn't dare drink white water," he said in a 2013 interview.

In Vicksburg, he and his wife, educator Dr. Ollye Shirley, urged blacks to register to vote, in spite of poll
taxes, literacy tests and bombings. 

"People were frightened to death," he said in that same interview. "I told them, 'You just got to do it for your children. And for yourself.'"

In such an environment, he believed he had no chance of being accepted by the Medical Center as a resident in pediatrics - his first love. But, unable to fill a slot offered to him by the University of Oklahoma for another year, he applied at UMMC in 1965.

Dr. Blair Batson accepted him after the second interview and Shirley was put on call that same night.

It was the prelude to a long list of accomplishments. He founded the Jackson Hinds Comprehensive Health Center, which serves the uninsured and underserved; established a school health clinic that become a model for the nation; and drove the creation of the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center, a one-stop location for medical and other services - a partnership involving UMMC, Jackson State University and Tougaloo College.

Shirley, a pediatric clinical instructor for more than 40 years, also worked to build a more efficient primary health-care system for rural Mississippi with Dr. Mohammad Shahbazi, a Jackson State University public health professor.

"Dr. Shirley is my Gandhi," Shahbazi said in 2013.

Shirley proposed a "health house" system of trained community health workers offering preventive care for the rural poor - a blueprint that triggered a July 27, 2012 cover story in The New York Times Magazine: "Dr. Shirley's Plan to Save Mississippi."

Eminent institutions have celebrated Shirley's career. In November 2013, the Association of American Medical Colleges named him the recipient of the Herbert W. Nickens Award for his efforts to promote justice and availability in medical care. He had been nominated by Dr. LouAnn Woodward, UMMC associate vice chancellor for health affairs and vice dean of the School of Medicine.

"He has both taught and lived his convictions," Woodward wrote in her nomination letter.

Shirley was the 2009 recipient of the Governor's Initiative for Volunteer Excellence (GIVE) Award in Lifetime Service.

In 1993, he received the MacArthur Fellowship, or "Genius Grant," for his ground-breaking labors in rural and urban health care.

A year before his death, Shirley was asked where he would be if he had left Mississippi, or if Batson had not given him a chance.

"It occurred to me that it would have been cowardly to leave," Shirley said. "I would have kind of disappeared into the sunset."

His survivors include his wife and four children.