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2013 Herbert W. Nickens Award

Aaron Shirley, M.D., University of Mississippi Medical Center

Dr. Shirley 100x134

Becoming the first African American resident at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) in 1965 was just the beginning of the trailblazing career of Aaron Shirley, M.D.

“For all of his adult life, he has been a courageous champion of civil rights and equal access to health services for African Americans,” says LouAnn Woodward, M.D., associate vice chancellor for health affairs and vice dean of the UMMC School of Medicine.

Dr. Shirley is former chairman of community health services at UMMC and served on the faculty for more than four decades. The pioneering work of Dr. Shirley was accomplished against all odds at a time when black physicians were prohibited from membership in the Mississippi State Medical Association. In 1963, Dr. Shirley helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and served as chairman for Warren County. He also provided health services to students in the Head Start program when local white physicians would not help.

Dr. Shirley began as a pediatrician in the Mississippi Delta and served as director of Mississippi Action for Progress, where he provided health care and education to rural children. In 1970, he co-founded the Jackson Hinds Comprehensive Health Center for low-income and uninsured patients. Under his direction for 26 years, it became a model for federally funded community health centers nationwide, and is now the largest primary care provider to the uninsured and underserved in central Mississippi.

In 1979, Dr. Shirley launched a clinic within a Jackson inner-city high school to offer health services and counseling. Based on its success, eight similar clinics were established in largely minority Mississippi schools.

Dr. Shirley’s most visible legacy may be the first-of-its-kind Jackson Medical Mall, where he has been chairman of its board since it opened in 1996.

He “envisioned the empty and vandalized shopping mall in a blighted section of the city as a one-stop shop for medical care and other public services,” says Dr. Woodward. “With skill and persistence, he persuaded medical and civic leaders to invest in the restoration of a building and ultimately a neighborhood.”

The Medical Mall is now home to the UMMC Cancer Institute and the Jackson Heart Study, the nation’s largest long-term evaluation of cardiovascular disease in African Americans.

Dr. Shirley has recently embarked on a venture to establish “health houses” as part of an integrated network in the Mississippi Delta based on an Iranian program. His initiative was spotlighted in a New York Times Magazine cover story last year titled: “Dr. Shirley’s Plan to Save Mississippi.” His goal is to open 13 more sites across the state.

State leaders have recognized Dr. Shirley’s enduring contributions to the promotion of justice in health care.

“Mississippi has been well served by Dr. Shirley’s leadership…he has dedicated his career to providing affordable and accessible care to those in need,” says Sen. Thad Cochran. Last year, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson honored Dr. Shirley in Congress, saying, “His dedication and commitment to closing the gap in health-care disparities is absolutely unparalleled.”

Dr. Shirley received his B.S. degree from Tougaloo College and his M.D. degree from Meharry Medical School.

Nickens Faculty Fellowship

This award honors individuals who assists medical schools achieve their diversity objectives and eliminate health care disparities.