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Physician Ernest Levister ’58 has dedicated himself to helping communities lacking accessible medical care

By April Helmer

Physician Ernest Levister ’58 has spent his career helping others heal and curing a healthcare system that gives inadequate attention to poor communities.

This year the California Wellness Foundation presented its Champions of Health Professions Diversity Award to Levister, a clinical professor of internal and occupational medicine at University of California, Irvine with a practice based in San Bernardino. This honor, and the R.D. Sparks Leadership Achievement Award from the California Medical Association Foundation in 2004, recognized him for his work in diversifying the medical community, in part through his key role in getting approval for a medical school at University of California, Riverside (UCR).

He is cofounder and former president of the Vines Medical Society, which assists minorities seeking a healthcare career and advocated for the medical school. He has written “Our Bodies,” a weekly health column for The Inland Island Black News, for more than two decades. He also serves on the Lincoln University Board of Trustees.

He was instrumental in the establishment of the UCR student organization African-Americans United in Science. The Vines Society provided these students with lectures, job shadowing and mentoring, a summer medical enrichment program, and funding for MCAT preparation courses.

Levister never considered the possibility of making such an impact when he studied engineering at Lafayette. He participated in a program in which students could enroll at Lincoln or another historically black college for two years and transfer to Lafayette.

In those days, African-Americans were a rarity at mainstream colleges. According to Levister, only two African-Americans graduated from Lafayette from its founding through 1940. Both students were slaves and one, David McDonogh 1844, went on attend classes at medical school, though he was denied the opportunity to earn a degree. Learning this history sparked Levister’s interest in medically underserved communities.

Levister was the first African-American to graduate from Lafayette with a degree in chemical engineering and the second to graduate with any engineering major. However, he never thought of his education as history-making.

“All I was thinking about was getting the brass ring,” he says.

After graduating, he worked as an engineering instructor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. From there he moved to Somerville, N.J., to work on the transistor program at RCA before deciding to change careers. Most opportunities in chemical engineering were in the South, which he found less than hospitable toward African-Americans.

“I became disenchanted and went back to Lincoln and took two or three classes to get into med school (having already earned 190-200 credits while an undergrad),” he says.

He worked while enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. After his post-graduate work, he served three-and-a-half years in the Army as a major in the medical corps. He then opened a practice in the South in a historically black area.

But, as in the rest of his life, Levister gathered no moss, serving as a medical attach� in the Foreign Service. He was assigned to West Africa, living in Nigeria and teaching some classes at Lagos University before moving back to the States.

In the midst of this he got married and raised two children. Levister opened another practice when he returned stateside. He was back in D.C. and taught at George Washington University while seeing patients before moving to California to join the University of California, Irvine.

He was being pulled toward specific medical topics – workplace-related injuries became a specialty. He served as president of the California Society of Industrial Medicine and Surgery, receiving its Silver Scalpel Award in 2000 for protecting the rights of injured workers and the physicians who treat them.

Levister also concentrated on working in communities that didn’t have accessible medical care. He discovered a significant problem in a university program meant to diversify the medical community.

“The program was founded as an outgrowth of the Watts riots,” he says. “One of the problems people realized was that the poorer communities were underserviced and one issue was cultural sensitivity.”

The Thomas Haider Progam in Biomedical Sciences at UCR/UCLA was meant to end the disparity by encouraging minority students to become doctors and serve in the communities where they lived. However, it had only graduated one African-American student since its establishment in 1974.

Trying to negotiate with leaders at the University of California, Levister and the Vines Medical Society realized that the state system did not want to compromise the UCLA medical education program by allowing the Riverside campus to establish one.

After eight years of frustration, the group took its cause to the California Legislature, which called on the University of California, Riverside “to radically restructure its elite Thomas Haider Program in Biomedical Sciences or face severe funding cuts,” Levister recalls. It was the first time that a state legislature took such an extensive role in a college’s curriculum, he adds.

The program was restructured and UC Riverside received approval to establish a medical school.

“We want to bring everyone onto a level playing field,” Levister says. Changes in the program have boosted students’ chances of success.

Looking ahead, Levister briefly considered going to law school, but decided against it. Instead he will continue to oversee the Haider Program and recruit for Lafayette. He says for him, student history is as important as grades when he interviews.

“When you interview kids,” he says, “you have to see the experiences they’ve had – if they had any volunteerism in their past or if they had to hold down a job while studying. All of this affects what kind of student you have.”

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