Dr. Robert Higgins: A Hopkins Historical First

by: Deborah Bailey Special to the AFRO
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Exceeding Expectations – two words characterize Dr. Robert S. D.  Higgins’s life as a son, surgeon and the first African American appointed as Director of the Department of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) School of Medicine.

Dr. Robert Higgins is the first African-American Director of the Department of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. (Courtesy photo)
Dr. Robert Higgins is the first African-American Director of the Department of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. (Courtesy photo)

Higgins, an internationally renowned heart-lung transplant surgeon, comes to JHU School of Medicine from Ohio State University School of Medicine. Almost two years into his role as “Surgeon in Chief” Higgins is laying the groundwork to exceed expectations once again – for the hospital and more importantly, for a more diverse cadre of medical professionals that will follow his lead.

A set of expectations instilled through family and life circumstances

Life was unexpectedly interrupted when Higgins was five.  His father, Charleston’s first African-American physician, was killed in a car accident. Higgins and his two younger brothers were raised by their mother and grandparents.

Higgin’s mother often repeated the axiom “there’s work to be done,” an expression Higgins internalized to embrace life’s challenges.

“My Mom spoke about the work to be done of being a good student with strong family values, with commitment and service to others as well as the community.”

“Service was always one of the things we heard and saw modeled in our home,” Higgins said.

Higgins left his transplanted home in upstate New York for Dartmouth College, at a time when few African-Americans graced the halls of Ivy league institutions. Higgins understood that his opportunity was made available through the sacrifice of others.

“It was clear that I had responsibilities not only to myself as a young person to develop academically but to others who had gone before me and created that opportunity,” Higgins told the {AFRO}.

“We were expected to perform at a fairly high level and take advantage of those opportunities or the opportunities would be lost,” Higgins said.

Developing the Connection Between Medicine and Community

Higgins accepted the challenge of completing his father’s unfinished work in medicine.  After Dartmouth, he headed to Yale Medical School.

“When I thought about medicine and what I could do it was clear that my Dad’s legacy would be benefitted by following in his footsteps,” Higgins said.

“I came to understand how cool it was to take care of patients with heart disease, which was the number one killer in America and certainly had a disproportional impact on people of color,” he said.

After completing medical school and advanced surgical training, Higgins combined his skill and passion for medicine with commitment to community; one modeled before him in childhood.

“I lived and worked in urban academic medical centers for that exact reason. After I finished my training I ended up in Detroit and worked downtown,” Higgins said.

“It was a fantastic opportunity for an African-American man to serve a community that was so deserving and in need of under-represented minorities taking a leadership role,” Higgins said of his Detroit experience.

Higgins is one of few surgeons capable of performing complex procedures, including open heart surgery, valve surgery, heart-lung transplant, mechanical circulatory support. He was the first African American division chair at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and  practiced at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.

“It was a rare opportunity to do the things that I did and serve the community,” Higgins said of his medical work in urban arenas.

Being the “first” at Hopkins  – Opening the Door for Others  

Higgins was happy with life at The Ohio State when JHU School of Medicine called two years ago.  Curiosity compelled him to accept the interview.

“This is among the elite academic medical facilities in the world. You see people with diseases named after them and Nobel laureates,” Higgins said.

But Higgins didn’t know that JHU, like many Baltimore institutions, was still reeling from Freddie Gray’s death and the worst unrest since the 1960’s.

JHU and JHU Medicine sought to reach out to a city that was nervous after Gray’s death.  JHU promised to create jobs, opportunities and to make Hopkins accessible to a city in need.

JHU School of Medicine needed Higgin’s – his surgical skill, administrative leadership and community commitment.  Higgins sees the challenge and how Hopkins is poised to do more.

“I have a greater appreciation of the importance of being the first African American in a leadership role here at Hopkins and from a physician leadership standpoint,” Higgins said.

“I’m proud of that.  I take it pretty seriously. I’m humbled by it.   I think I’m up to it but it will be up to others to judge,” Higgins said.

While Higgins embraces the challenge of performing at an international standard of excellence in his daily work, he sees a greater challenge of bringing others through the doors at JHU School of Medicine to follow in his footsteps.

“I believe that my greatest measure of success will be if I can not only do the job and do it well but to open the door for others and make it a more inclusive and diverse environment,” Higgins said.

“Meet the challenge – discharge the responsibility – open the door for others, those are the parameters of success.”

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