Journal of Gerontological Nursing

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Spotlight 

Mary Starke Harper "I Love Doing the Impossible"

Debra A Santo-Novak, DSN, RNC; Kathy R Grissom, MA, NHA; Richard E Powers, MD

Abstract

Colleagues called her "Little Bit" when she began her nursing career at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama caring for Dr. George Washington Carver. Today many call her a "Living Legend." What path led this determined woman from standing on a stool to see over the counter and serve customers at her father's store in Phoenix City (South Gerard), Alabama to advising United States presidents and shaping health care policy around the world?

At an early age, she set as her goals to insist that each patient receive the best care available and to be a leader in the field of nursing. Dr. Harper has never wavered from those goals. Within minutes of meeting her, one becomes aware of Dr. Harper's interest and compassion for each human being. She values for the unique things individuals bring to the world, but will constantly push them to achieve more than they thought possible. She readily includes others in the abundant love of all those she broadly includes in her family. At the age of 81 she continues the fight for quality through policy development and teaching younger health care professionals. Dr. Harper consistently emphasizes that there are many more miles on her chosen path and much yet to be done to assure quality services are available for all those in need, especially older adults and individuals who are mentally ill.

After more than 50 years working for the Federal government around the country, she now lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her new home is only a few miles from the 126-bed geriatric psychiatry hospital that the State of Alabama named in her honor. This energetic woman still commutes to Washington regularly and travels throughout the country to advocate for improved health care for America's older citizens- Whether sitting in her kitchen surrounded by her life's treasures or tending to her lush garden, Dr. Harper enthusiastically discusses current and future projects. Only when specifically asked will she discuss her past accomplishments and the struggles she, the grandchild of a slave, encountered to help bring diversity to health services in this country. Dr. Harper prioritizes her family as the first commitment in her life, followed closely by her profession. Following the death of her husband, her only child, and her sissister, she raised three nephews and cared for her mother in her home until her mother's death, Dr. Harper's combined experiences at home and in the workplace created the individual who is an international presence. Her life has had periods of personal adversity but has been devoted to continuous learning and relentless advocacy for improvements in health care. She earned a diploma in nursing at Tuskegee Institute; bachelor and master's degrees from the University of Minnesota; and a PhD in sociology and psychology from St. Louis University. Dr. Harper was only 19 years old when she unknowingly cared for the men involved in the syphilis study known as the "Tuskegee Experiment." She credits this experience as the catalyst that "drove me to get myself in a position to make a difference." In 1999, President Clinton appointed Dr. Harper consultant for research at the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Healthcare at Tuskegee University.

Dr. Harper states that every situation that seems to be a setback turns into an advantage. "I pray to God and what I get next is better than what was denied me," she says. One example is her return to Tuskegee after receiving her degree in nursing at the University of Minnesota. The only jobs she was offered were as a nurse's aide or a janitor. She took the nurse's aide job…

Colleagues called her "Little Bit" when she began her nursing career at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama caring for Dr. George Washington Carver. Today many call her a "Living Legend." What path led this determined woman from standing on a stool to see over the counter and serve customers at her father's store in Phoenix City (South Gerard), Alabama to advising United States presidents and shaping health care policy around the world?

At an early age, she set as her goals to insist that each patient receive the best care available and to be a leader in the field of nursing. Dr. Harper has never wavered from those goals. Within minutes of meeting her, one becomes aware of Dr. Harper's interest and compassion for each human being. She values for the unique things individuals bring to the world, but will constantly push them to achieve more than they thought possible. She readily includes others in the abundant love of all those she broadly includes in her family. At the age of 81 she continues the fight for quality through policy development and teaching younger health care professionals. Dr. Harper consistently emphasizes that there are many more miles on her chosen path and much yet to be done to assure quality services are available for all those in need, especially older adults and individuals who are mentally ill.

After more than 50 years working for the Federal government around the country, she now lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her new home is only a few miles from the 126-bed geriatric psychiatry hospital that the State of Alabama named in her honor. This energetic woman still commutes to Washington regularly and travels throughout the country to advocate for improved health care for America's older citizens- Whether sitting in her kitchen surrounded by her life's treasures or tending to her lush garden, Dr. Harper enthusiastically discusses current and future projects. Only when specifically asked will she discuss her past accomplishments and the struggles she, the grandchild of a slave, encountered to help bring diversity to health services in this country. Dr. Harper prioritizes her family as the first commitment in her life, followed closely by her profession. Following the death of her husband, her only child, and her sissister, she raised three nephews and cared for her mother in her home until her mother's death, Dr. Harper's combined experiences at home and in the workplace created the individual who is an international presence. Her life has had periods of personal adversity but has been devoted to continuous learning and relentless advocacy for improvements in health care. She earned a diploma in nursing at Tuskegee Institute; bachelor and master's degrees from the University of Minnesota; and a PhD in sociology and psychology from St. Louis University. Dr. Harper was only 19 years old when she unknowingly cared for the men involved in the syphilis study known as the "Tuskegee Experiment." She credits this experience as the catalyst that "drove me to get myself in a position to make a difference." In 1999, President Clinton appointed Dr. Harper consultant for research at the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Healthcare at Tuskegee University.

Dr. Harper states that every situation that seems to be a setback turns into an advantage. "I pray to God and what I get next is better than what was denied me," she says. One example is her return to Tuskegee after receiving her degree in nursing at the University of Minnesota. The only jobs she was offered were as a nurse's aide or a janitor. She took the nurse's aide job to help support her family. Shortly thereafter, the Veterans' Administration decreed that the Director of Nursing in each VA Hospital must have at least a baccalaureate degree. Dr. Harper was the only person at the Tuskegee VA with such a degree. Overnight she became the Director of Nursing and actively began improving patient care and education for nursing personnel.

Dr. Harper mentored many of the geropsychiatry leaders in nursing, medicine, and psychology. She assured funding for their research and education. Dr. Harper is also credited with initiating several aging research centers throughout the United States. She has traveled to more than 20 countries representing the World Health Organization and the United States government. A worldrenowned expert in mental health and aging, Dr. Harper is much in demand as a consultant and policy advisor, recently testifying before Congress on older women's health issues.

When asked to identify her greatest contribution to date, Dr. Harper states that she has helped nurses "get guts and use them." She stresses that individuals must be willing to stand alone if needed but, most importantly, stand up for their convictions. She believes that convincing others to join in her quest makes her efforts even more successful. Dr. Harper compels those she meets to do more than they ever thought possible. She loves to do the impossible and assumes anyone can do the same.

Spending time with Dr. Harper is a once in a lifetime opportunity, leaving one enriched for having been in her presence and infected with her drive to improve the quality of the world's health care. Alabama is truly blessed to have her return home to continue her work.

REFERENCES

  • Harper, M (Ed.) (1986). Mental health in nursing homes: An agenda for research. Washington, DC: The National Institute of Mental Health.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1999). Mental health: A report from the surgeon general. Rockville, MD: Author.

10.3928/0098-9134-20010201-09

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