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Healthcare and Medicine in Berks County - Woven With Words


Heidi Hummel


Information about health and medical issues in the local African American community has been scant, at least until the mid-twentieth century.  In a recent interview (2005), Frank Gilyard, a local historian and curator of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, recalled people and events significant to healthcare.


Gilyard recalled that Dr. James Goodwin, an influential and highly respected African American figure in Berks County, was responsible for implementing tuberculosis screenings at local schools for the African American community some time around 1935.  He also remembers the Red Cross setting up tuberculosis testing programs at the 4th and Laurel recreation center.  In addition, the Department of Welfare provided prenatal care and checkups for babies in local schools.  Gilyard has a fourteen-carat gold necklace that the Department of Welfare gave him when he was a child as a reward for attending such checkups.


Gilyard worked as a lab technician at St. Joseph’s and Wernersville State hospitals for a total of thirty-nine years.  He was hired in 1952, the first African American to hold such a position.  At that time, he was not permitted to eat lunch with the other employees.  Gilyard’s sister, Sallie Davis, who was hired by St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1954, was their first African American nurse.  During the early to mid twentieth century, there were few African American medical doctors in Reading.  In addition to Dr. Goodwin, a general practitioner, there were Dr. Lee Terry, a respiratory specialist who was also involved in city reform, Dr. Page and Dr. Glenn, both of whom came to Reading shortly after World War II, and Dr. William Swinson, a local dentist.     


Willie Copeland, a lab technician at the Reading Hospital, remembers volunteering in 1969 at a 5th and Bingaman clinic to help identify those who had, or were carriers for, sickle cell anemia.  The project was initiated by Jack Luch, a hematologist and oncologist at the Reading Hospital who wanted to raise public awareness of sickle cell anemia in the African American community (Copeland 2005).


Dr. Ronald Smith, an African American community leader and an anesthesiologist at the Reading Hospital since 1982, states that he has been accepted by his employers and colleagues at the hospital.  His expertise in pediatric anesthesia and being good at what he does “gave [him] an advantage as far as fitting in; even if people saw [his] color, they didn’t actually say that when [he] took care of them.”  However, Dr. Smith believes that African American interns who struggle on the job “would have gotten more chances and people would not have been quite as critical” if they had been white (Smith 2005).


According to Smith, economics makes healthcare unequal for the Berks African American community.  He estimates that only fifty percent of the African American community has health insurance, while the other fifty percent “do not get regular medical care, and they do not think about preventative care” (Smith 2005). Primarily, visits to the doctor are made only if people are sick, rather than for regular checkups.  Over the years, the African American community has held workshops on prostate cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and breast cancer in order to promote awareness about the importance of preventative care.  The first African American Community Health Fair was held in 1997. S ponsored by St. Joseph’s Medical Center, M Voice, and Bethel A.M.E. Church, the fair was aimed at providing information about prevention to low-income African American residents.          


Currently, there are several African American doctors, nurses, and technicians at the Reading Hospital and other medical institutions in Berks, including Dr. Camille Upchurch, a Maryland native who practices internal medicine; Dr. Francisco Daniels, a Reading native who is affiliated with Shillington Internal Medical Associates as a general practitioner of internal medicine; Dr. Lanniecce Hall, originally from New Jersey, a resident physician of gynecology and obstetrics; and Dr. Jarrett Patton, a pediatrician who arrived in Reading from Connecticut in 2002.


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