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Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1953

Medical School

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine



Career Path

General medicine: Family
Public health
Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble


Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble is a physician and historian of medicine. Raised in a poor neighborhood in West Philadelphia in the 1950s, she has become an influential spokesperson for equal access to quality medical care for all Americans. She served as chair of the Legacy Committee of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study which prompted a Presidential apology for the treatment of African Americans patients.

Vanessa Northington Gamble was born in West Philadelphia in 1953. Her parents separated when she was in elementary school, leaving her mother (a presser at a dry cleaners) to raise two daughters on a very small income. The children were raised with the help of their grandmother, who believed Vanessa Gamble would grow up to become a physician. Gamble attended Philadelphia High School for Girls with financial assistance from the White-Williams Scholars organization, a non-profit group that children from low-income families to pay for their education. She graduated summa cum laude in 1970 and went on to study medical sociology and human biology at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, earning her bachelor's degree in 1974. She wrote her senior thesis on the Tuskegee syphilis study, a tragic medical experiment which exploited the African American men recruited for the study, and which would become a central issue in Gamble's career.

Gamble received her doctor of medicine degree in 1983, from the University of Pennsylvania, and four years later, her Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science. She then completed a residency in family medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

Dr. Gamble has taught at the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Massachusetts, and Hampshire College, where she was also appointed to the Board of Trustees. In 1989, she joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where she developed one of the first courses in the country to explore the history or race and American medicine and public health. She was then appointed associate professor of history of medicine and family medicine, and founder and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the University of Wisconsin Medical School.

In 1997, Dr. Gamble chaired the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee. In the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, beginning in 1932 and lasting forty years, 399 poor African American men with syphilis were told by U.S. Public Health Service physicians that they were receiving treatment for the disease when they were not. Penicillin, the cure for syphilis, was introduced in 1947, but the men remained untreated until the study ended in 1972. It is thought that by that time, 28 men had died directly of syphilis, 100 had died from related complications, 40 women married to men in the study had contracted syphilis, and 19 children had been born with the disease, which can cause heart disease, paralysis, mental illness, and death. On may 16th, 1997, in response to the efforts of the Legacy Committee, President Clinton apologized on behalf of the United States government and condemned the study as racist.

In 1999, Dr. Gamble was appointed head of the Association of American Medical Colleges' (AAMC) Division of Community and Minority Programs. Dr. Gamble has served as consultant or committee member on a range of projects run by national medical organizations, including the Institute of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the American Foundation for AIDS Research. In 2003 she was appointed associate professor in the department of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she is deputy director of the Center for Health Disparities Solutions.

National Library of Medicine