Professor Emeritus, Washington University School of Medicine
Nephrology Clinical Research Fellow, 1973-1975
Research Fellow in Pharmacology, 1976-1978
Ask Aubrey Morrison, MBBS, to characterize his 45-year career at Washington University School of Medicine, and he punts to a draft of his memoirs that he’s working on titled, “Reflections of a Naïve Trainee.”
Morrison, who retired from the Division of Nephrology in early October 2020, flew to St. Louis in 1970 after graduating from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland. “A professor of medicine in Dublin was a nephrologist and he took a special interest in me as a student, which kindled my interest in nephrology,” says Morrison. “One of my classmates, who had a father on the faculty at Johns Hopkins, said that his father suggested I apply to the rotating internship program at Barnes Hospital. The program was in its last year before being phased out and I knew nothing about St. Louis, Barnes Hospital, or Washington University but I decided to fly across the ocean to take the position. If one thinks this naivete was bordering on stupidity, I would understand.”
But he jumped into the role. As he did, he couldn’t help noticing that all of the physicians around him were white. “All the attendings, residents, and my peer interns were white. I stood out as the only black person,” he says. He recalls, vividly, how some physicians mistook him as a transporter, requesting stretchers and other equipment before realizing he was a physician himself. “Frankly, my presence as a black intern in the surgical suites was a significant departure from the norm, and that forced a rethinking of attitudes at a time when St. Louis had a colorful segregational history.”
Complicating his career path was the fact that only three prior rotating interns were accepted as residents in medicine. After an unexpected office conversation with then-chair of the Department of Medicine, Carl Moore, MD, Morrison applied for and was later accepted as an internal medicine resident. Again, he noted, all the attending physicians and the majority of house staff were white and he was the only black resident.
What is indelibly marked in memory is the time in 1972 when a white patient refused to be examined by Morrison, who by then was senior assistant resident. The attending physician learned about the refusal and told the patient that if she refused to be examined by Dr. Morrison, she needed to find another doctor. “At that moment,” Morrison says, “I was very reassured that the program was committed to supporting house staff and confronting acts of racism on the service.”
As he moved on through a clinical research fellowship in nephrology and a postdoctoral research fellow in pharmacology, however, overt and subtle forms of racism occurred. At every level, Morrison rose above it all and had champions by his side, both for clinical care as well as for research efforts. In the Division of Nephrology, he served for awhile as researcher in the lab of Saulo Klahr, MD. He discovered that the kidney cortex could metabolize arachidonic acid through a NADPH-dependent pathway of cytochrome P450, a finding that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. For this and several other research findings, Morrison became the first black physician elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation in 1982. When he was promoted to Professor of Medicine in 1987, he was the first black at the School of Medicine to achieve a full professorship. “The door opened a crack and I went through, which has allowed others to follow,” he notes.
What to do in retirement? Morrison says he’ll travel and keep his ties to the Division of Nephrology and the Department of Internal Medicine for as long as he can. And he’ll remember the remarkable patients and advocates he met while forging an amazing career path at Washington University School of Medicine.