When St. Jude opened in 1962, Danny Thomas vowed the hospital would treat patients regardless of race, religion or ability to pay. Dr. Rudolph Jackson was one of the first black doctors at St. Jude.
While he was finishing his training in Philadelphia, Dr. Rudolph Jackson fielded an offer to move 1,000 miles and begin practicing at a fledgling, low-paying hospital in the South where he would be one of the first black physicians. Suffice it to say he had some reservations.
First off, the job was in Memphis. The year was 1968.
As Jackson later put it, in the most understated of ways, “A lot of things were going on down there.”
Things like racial strife and citywide turmoil spiraling from a bitter sanitation workers’ strike and the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Then there was the matter of salary. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which had opened just six years earlier, would pay Jackson $18,000 annually — a modest sum for a doctor even back then.
“When I came down there and I told people how much money I was going to make, they kind of laughed at me and asked, ‘Why are you going down there?’”
Ultimately, Jackson cast his doubts aside and accepted the offer from Dr. Donald Pinkel, St. Jude’s first medical director. He arrived in August 1968 and began treating children for leukemia, solid tumors, sickle cell disease and “any other strange and out-of-way problems,” he recalls.
Over the next four years, Jackson witnessed and took part in new therapies that produced major advances in the battle against cancer and other life-threatening diseases. He saw treatments that had been refined and tested at St. Jude copied by institutions around the world.
Amid the frenetic pace of change, Jackson gave less thought than one might imagine to his distinction as one of St. Jude’s first African-American doctors. “At the time it didn’t mean perhaps as much as later on.”