(July 17, 2009)
The July 9 kickoff for the inaugural Friends of Laupus Library membership drive featured guest speaker Dr. Paul R.G. Cunningham, East Carolina University’s dean of the Brody School of Medicine and senior associate vice chancellor for medical affairs.
Laupus Library is hosting a national traveling exhibit “Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons,” which celebrates the achievements of African-American pioneers in academic surgery. The exhibit is located on the fourth floor through July 28.
Dr. Dorothy Spencer, director of the library, said the exhibit is a reminder of the challenges faced by health care pioneers, past and present. It also provided a timely opportunity to honor Cunningham, who has forged many firsts during three decades of service.
He is one of only seven African-American medical deans in the country, and was honored by the Journal of the National Medical Association as one of three presiding African-American deans at majority medical schools to appear on the journal’s cover in February.
Cunningham returned to ECU in September from the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse where he had been chair of the Department of Surgery for the past six years. He was a faculty member at ECU for 21 years before leaving in 2002 to assume the position in Syracuse.
Cunningham talked about growing up in Jamaica, wanting to be a surgeon since he was 6 years old and the influence of his grandfather, who was a veterinarian. He recalled many people who mentored him, including ECU’s Dr. Walter Pories, a professor and former chair of surgery who recruited Cunningham to ECU in the 1980s, and Dr. Sydney Barnwell of New Bern, a former faculty member and the first black surgeon in eastern North Carolina.
“They all contributed to my success and all believed in my dream,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham is a medical graduate of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. He also completed surgery training there, at Mount Sinai Hospital, Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital and City Hospital at Elmhurst, all in New York City.
He moved to Windsor in Bertie County in 1981 where he practiced, was vice chief of the medical staff at Bertie Memorial Hospital and taught ECU medical students who rotated through his practice. He was the first black member of the Cashie Country Club.
Cunningham joined the ECU faculty full time in 1984 and became medical director of trauma the following year. He also was interim director of the organ transplant division from 1990-1991 and chief of the medical staff at Pitt County Memorial Hospital in 1991. He was the first African-American physician - the first surgeon - to perform a practice pancreas transplant, and was the first black president of the Pitt County Medical Society.
The physicians honored in the exhibit held several common traits: supportive families, exceptional mentors, innate talent and a never-give-up attitude, Cunningham said.
“Much of my talk was looking in the rear view mirror, but hard work lies in the future,” Cunningham said. “We need to inspire young people.”
Dr. Richard Eakin, former ECU chancellor and co-chair of the Friends of Laupus Library, asked everyone in attendance to consider joining the Friends group, which provides support for library programming and is a vital component for the community.
Levels of membership range from $25 to $1,000 and individuals or couples giving at least $1,000 during the 2009-2012 term will be designated as a founding friend on a special donor board.
For more information on becoming a Friend and future activities and events, go to www.ecu.edu/laupuslibrary/friends or contact Kelly Rogers, head of development at Laupus Library, at 252-744-2232 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Cunningham’s presentation is posted on the Web site under previous activities and events.