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Tom Dillard: Arkansas owes much to this trinity of modern health leaders

by Tom Dillard | August 1, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Joe Bates of Little Rock at a book signing in Benton. We were there along with a large and appreciative audience to celebrate the publication of a book on Arkansas doctors by my friend Dr. Sam Taggart, a retired Benton physician who now lives in Hot Springs.

It was an honor to finally shake the hand of Dr. Bates, a medical leader whom Dr. Taggart had spoken about on numerous occasions. Taggart included Bates, along with the late Drs. Roger Bost and Tom Bruce, as the three primary medical leaders who pushed and cajoled Arkansas into joining the American medical mainstream, and in some cases leading the nation in medical advancements.

Roger Bost of Fort Smith was already known for his amazing medical skills and persistence in bringing good pediatric care to the children of western Arkansas when, in 1971, then-Gov. Dale Bumpers named him as the director of what is today the Department of Human Services.

A native of Clarksville in Johnson County, Roger Browning Bost was born Oct. 28, 1921. His father was a pharmacist. He attended local schools, the University of Arkansas, and completed medical school in three years at UAMS. Following service in the Navy during World War II, Bost did a pediatric residency at Duke University Hospital.

Bost was teaching and working as a pediatrician in New Orleans in 1954 when he decided to return to Arkansas. He had a gnawing realization that pediatric services were very limited; his pediatric practice in Fort Smith was only the third in Arkansas, as well as the first in Fort Smith to have a racially integrated waiting room.

He was an advocate for children with special needs. When the Fort Smith Public Schools refused to begin programs for mentally challenged children, he ran for the school board and won, becoming chairman within two years. This time his efforts were successful, and Fort Smith became the first in the state to have special education classrooms.

In 1965 Bost relocated to Little Rock, becoming a professor of pediatrics at UAMS. He also became the medical director of the Crippled Children's Hospital, now known as Arkansas Children's Hospital, which under his leadership became the pediatric arm of UAMS.

As a member of Gov. Bumpers' cabinet, Bost was in a position to take his energy and enthusiasm to the whole state. Among his many activities was helping create the Area Health Education Centers. Perhaps his most contentious decision was insisting that politicians no longer have control over state medical facilities in their districts.

The pugnacious Sen. Mutt Jones of Conway became Bost's nemesis in the Legislature. When Bost refused to back down, Sen. Jones commented that for such a "runt of a man, Bost was 90 percent backbone."

Bost died Nov. 19, 2013. Longtime journalist Ernest Dumas summed up Bost's life and work: "No one in Arkansas ever did as much to lift the welfare of children, and not just children but people of all ages who at some point have found themselves or loved ones outside the latitudes of first-rate health care ..."

Dr. Thomas Allen Bruce shared Bost's extraordinary yearning to see good health services made available to the people of Arkansas regardless of color, financial resources or where they lived. He was born in Mountain Home, Baxter County, in 1930, and grew up there. Young Tom Bruce wanted to be a concert pianist, but was disabused of that notion when the UA music department auditioned him for a scholarship and told the young man to become a plumber instead. He entered UAMS in 1948, receiving his medical degree in 1955.

While in his senior year, Bruce contracted tuberculosis. In an oral history interview a few months before his death, Bruce attributed the infection to his frequent contact with cadavers infected with the disease. After a delay for treatment, Bruce began an internship at Duke University, followed by a year at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute and additional study in Dallas and London.

Bruce was head of cardiology at the University of Oklahoma medical school when he was recruited to be dean of the UAMS medical school in 1974. During his 11-year tenure as dean, he was especially successful in expanding UAMS services across the state through the Area Health Education Centers. The Kellogg Foundation in Michigan lured Bruce to head a national initiative on rural health care.

Most people would have retired at the end of his 12 years with the Foundation, but Bruce was just getting started. He served almost two years as the inaugural dean of the newly created UAMS School of Public Health. Then he was recruited to start the new Clinton School. He chaired the board of Heifer International, volunteered for the Arkansas Community Foundation, was a major supporter of Wildwood Center for the Performing Arts, and became a Master Gardener. Tom Bruce died March 4, 2016.

Dr. Joe Bates is actively engaged in improving the health of Arkansans. Born on Sept. 19, 1933, he grew up in rural south Pulaski County. He credits his mother, a teacher, with instilling a love of learning in her young son.

He attended Hendrix College, where he majored in English, and took his bachelor of science degree from the University of Arkansas in 1954. Completing his medical degree at UAMS in 1957, Bates continued his studies at UAMS and ultimately became a highly regarded pulmonologist, with a specialty in tuberculosis.

Bates recalled in 1994, upon assuming the presidency of the American Lung Association, that as a 16-year-old boy "it befell my lot to drive my uncle ... to the tuberculosis sanitarium." That journey "profoundly affected me and just created a rage in me about tuberculosis."

Ironically, Bates worked at the state tuberculosis sanatorium in Booneville for a time early in his career. Along with colleagues Dr. Paul Reagan and Dr. William Stead, he later worked to replace the two state TB sanitariums with out-patient treatment.

Bates joined the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Little Rock in 1963, becoming chief of medical services. At the same time he was contributing vast amounts of time and energy at UAMS, where he was professor of medicine. In more recent years, Bates used DNA to rapidly diagnose tuberculosis.

In 1998, he was recruited to direct the TB control program at the Arkansas Department of Health, soon becoming deputy director and chief science officer. He was a strong foe of cigarettes and worked hard to outlaw smoking in restaurants.

Bates joined the UAMS College of Public Health upon its creation in 2001, working as professor of epidemiology and associate dean. In recent years he has tried to slow down, but as Sam Taggart says, "Joe has flunked retirement three times." He still keeps an office at the College of Public Health.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Malvern. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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