News : 2017 : March

George L. Sanders, M.D. ’69, honored as a UTrailblazer

When George L. Sanders, M.D. ’69, came to South Florida to study at the University of Miami School of Medicine in 1965, the shadow of racism was never far away. The school’s only African-American student at the time, he was refused admittance to most of the medical societies, and he was once barred from entering an apartment complex where his classmates had arranged a study session.

But in the classroom, Sanders remembers, discrimination of any kind simply wasn’t on the curriculum.

“We didn’t have too much time for foolishness,” Sanders recalled. “We were all in one boat, and that boat was headed toward an M.D. degree.”

As the School of Medicine’s first African-American graduate, Sanders was one of the honorees at UTrailblazers, an inaugural event on February 24-25 on the Coral Gables campus. The program is part of the First Black Graduates Project, an initiative created by the UM Black Alumni Society to honor black students who graduated from UM during the ’60s and ’70s. Sanders was honored as one of Top of the Class UTrailblazers, a select group of graduates with a distinguished record of blazing the trail and building the dream of inclusion and diversity.

Born to parents whose highest educational level was the 6th grade, Sanders was the eighth of nine children. The family lived as sharecroppers in Georgia, and Sander’s father suffered from severe asthma. His inspiration to become a doctor was hatched in those early years when the town doctor would travel miles to their rural home to care for his father during an attack. A short time later, he was always amazed that his father would feel better.

“That made such a good impression on me as a child,” said Sanders. “It inspired me, and I really think I decided to be a doctor because of that.”

The family moved to Pompano Beach in 1950, and Sanders graduated as valedictorian of Blanche Ely High School in 1961 and was accepted at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. After graduating in the top five of his class, and at the height of desegregation, UM’s School of Medicine offered Sanders a spot in their medical school. After graduation, he did an internship in internal medicine at Jackson Memorial Hospital (JMH) and then served in the U.S. Army from 1970 to 1972. Following that, he returned to JMH and completed a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in cardiology.

Sanders said it quickly became evident, working with graduates from other prestigious programs, such as Harvard and Yale, that the education at UM’s School of Medicine was top-notch.

“When I saw we were on the same academic level, I knew we had gotten a wonderful education,” he said. “I never really doubted that.”

His appreciation for the medical school is one of the reasons he is also a longtime supporter of the John K. Robinson Fund, generously donating primarily to medical scholarships since 1980.

“I know some students are as financially challenged as I was,” said Sanders, who lives in Crestview, Florida. “I was fortunate that I had a lot of scholarships and I was able to supplement them with loans. So, I am happy to help students whose shoes I used to fill.”

Sanders was in private practice as a cardiologist in Miami from 1978 to 1990, during which time he served as clinical professor of cardiology at the UM Department of Family Medicine and Community Health and adjunct professor of cardiology at the University of Florida.

In 1990, Sanders returned to active military duty, this time with the U.S. Air Force, serving as squadron and group commander in the rank of colonel. He left active duty in 2001 and remained in the Air Force Reserve until 2008. From 2003 to 2008, he also served as vice chief and chief of cardiology at the Gallup Indian Medical Center in New Mexico.

Now 74 and retired, Sanders golfs and goes to the gym every day. He raised three sons, one of whom is a veterinarian at the University of Washington, a second who works in the insurance field in Georgia, and the third who works for the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

Sanders says he has fond memories of many of the medical school’s professors, including Dr. John K. Robinson, whom he says always had time for his students, whether it was to discuss medicine or life in general.

“My success in medicine is directly related to the unselfish teaching I received at this medical school,” Sanders said. “It was an incredible experience.”