Breaking Ground
My Life in Medicine

Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, with David Chanoff
Foreword by Ambassador Andrew Young

The compelling life story of a towering champion of higher education, medicine, and accessible health care for all


“I have always known that Lou Sullivan was an outstanding head of Health and Human Services and a valued member of my White House team. I am convinced we are a healthier nation still today because of some of the issues Lou brought to the table with so much passion and determination; I paid attention. But I don’t think I really appreciated the man Louis Sullivan is until I read Breaking Ground. He is a true American hero, and Barbara and I are proud we have played a small part in his life’s journey.”
—President George H. W. Bush

“In this dramatic and revealing memoir that takes us from the segregated backwoods of Georgia to the founding of the nation’s premier African American medical school and the cabinet of President George H. W. Bush, Lou Sullivan shows how commitment, courage, a sense of humor, and a passion for health promotion and disease prevention can make life better for all Americans.”
—Joseph A. Califano, Jr., top White House assistant for domestic affairs under President Lyndon Johnson and secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter administration

“Lou Sullivan’s life story offers a compelling chronicle of how vision and perseverance can overcome daunting obstacles. Sullivan is a genuine American hero, and his life stands as a testament to how devotion to the service of others can breech any barrier and ascend any height.”
—Jordan J. Cohen, M.D., MACP, President Emeritus, Association of American Medical Colleges

“Louis Sullivan proved that when leadership is rooted in compassion and exercised with courage, it can be a powerful source of change. This book provides insight into his personal roots, his professional drive, and his historic decisions.”
—Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, President and CEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

“Lou Sullivan has always believed that addressing the health requirements of the country’s neediest—its minorities and poor—will bring the greatest benefit to society as a whole. That was the theme of his tenure as secretary, and that has been the impact of the medical school he founded. In this book he writes with clarity, passion, and humor about the life he has led and the issues that dominate our current health care debates.”
—from the foreword by Ambassador Andrew Young

"One of the first of the civil rights generation to achieve national distinction, Sullivan is an engaging narrator as well as a passionate advocate for his beloved Morehouse and a variety of public health initiatives, particularly expanding medical education for African Americans. Sullivan is an outstanding example of a 'Morehouse man' who has made a difference; this narrative of his life and legacy will entertain and inspire."
Library Journal

“This book is an inspiration, and insightful story about a man whose tireless work makes the world a healthier place.”
Pure Politics

"Dr. Sullivan has made remarkable strides in expanding medical education, increasing opportunities for African Americans, and improving the health of the nation. This autobiography is a fascinating glimpse of the journey from segregation to recognition as a national leader for health care education and reform."
—Kathy Davies, Georgia Library Quartelry

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While Louis W. Sullivan was a student at Morehouse College, Morehouse president Benjamin Mays said something to the student body that stuck with him for the rest of his life. “The tragedy of life is not failing to reach our goals,” Mays said. “It is not having goals to reach.”

In Breaking Ground, Sullivan recounts his extraordinary life beginning with his childhood in Jim Crow south Georgia and continuing through his trailblazing endeavors training to become a physician in an almost entirely white environment in the Northeast, founding and then leading the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and serving as secretary of Health and Human Services in President George H. W. Bush’s administration. Throughout this extraordinary life Sullivan has passionately championed both improved health care and increased access to medical professions for the poor and people of color.

At five years old, Louis Sullivan declared to his mother that he wanted to be a doctor. Given the harsh segregation in Blakely, Georgia, and its lack of adequate schools for African Americans at the time, his parents sent Louis and his brother, Walter, to Savannah and later Atlanta, where greater educational opportunities existed for blacks.

After attending Booker T. Washington High School and Morehouse College, Sullivan went to medical school at Boston University—he was the sole African American student in his class. He eventually became the chief of hematology there until Hugh Gloster, the president of Morehouse College, presented him with an opportunity he couldn’t refuse: Would Sullivan be the founding dean of Morehouse’s new medical school? He agreed and went on to create a state-of-the-art institution dedicated to helping poor and minority students become doctors. During this period he established long-lasting relationships with George H. W. and Barbara Bush that would eventually result in his becoming the secretary of Health and Human Services in 1989.

Sullivan details his experiences in Washington dealing with the burgeoning AIDS crisis, PETA activists, and antismoking efforts, along with his efforts to push through comprehensive health care reform decades before the Affordable Care Act. Along the way his interactions with a cast of politicos, including Thurgood Marshall, Jack Kemp, Clarence Thomas, Jesse Helms, and the Bushes, capture vividly a particular moment in recent history.

Sullivan’s life—from Morehouse to the White House and his ongoing work with medical students in South Africa—is the embodiment of the hopes and progress that the civil rights movement fought to achieve. His story should inspire future generations—of all backgrounds—to aspire to great things.

A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication

Page count: 288
37 b&w photos
Trim size: 6.125 x 9.25

Read more about Dr. Louis W. Sullivan at the New Georgia Encyclopedia.


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Dr. Louis W. Sullivan is the founding dean and first president of Morehouse School of Medicine (now president emeritus). He was secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the George H. W. Bush administration. He is chair of the board of the National Health Museum in Atlanta and the Washington, D.C.–based Sullivan Alliance to Transform America’s Health Professionals. He is author of The Morehouse Mystique: Becoming a Doctor at the Nation’s Newest African American Medical School (with Marybeth Gasman). David Chanoff has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and the New Republic. His sixteen books include collaborations with former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe Jr., and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.