Physician Spotlight: Dr. Kenneth S. Robinson
If ever a life represented a circle, it would be that of the Reverend Kenneth S. Robinson, MD, the current Commissioner of the Department of Health for the State of Tennessee. Born in Nashville at Hubbard Hospital, Robinson tells an extraordinary story that parallels his accomplished career as a physician, educator, and now as the state's chief health officer.
"I was born premature and was predicted not to survive. Much of my childhood and adolescence was spent being nursed back to health."
Robinson was born in 1954 into an era of Southern segregation … born just two weeks after Brown v. Board of Education. His formative years would greatly impact both his professional and his personal life. "One of my caretakers was Dr. E. Perry Crump, the first African-American board certified, NIH-trained allergist. I didn't know it at the time, but he was just part of that cocoon of care that I received at Meharry," says Robinson.
Robinson's parents were public school educators and helped him understand the importance and impact of education, not only of an academic nature, but within the spiritual world as well.
"I grew up in a church, very active in faith; and my parents were a strong component in that mixture of faith, church, community and social service."
He knew at a young age that medicine would be his career. Influenced by Crump's own child who had Down Syndrome, Robinson began volunteering with the mentally retarded at a young age. By the time he was 14, he was traveling the country and was the national president of the National Association of Retarded Citizens. His passion for medicine and ministering is as strong today as during his youth.
"All I ever wanted to be was a doctor. I was thrilled to get accepted to Harvard Medical School," says Robinson.
For someone who never doubted his path, Robinson nearly changed career directions just one year into medical school. "The summer after my first year, God revealed that I should enter the preaching ministry. This was totally unexpected and undesired and nearly threw my career for a loop."
It was at that point that Robinson knew he would spend his life at the intersection between medicine and faith. He spent the last three years in medical school exploring faith and medicine at a time when Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard introduced the idea of mind/body interaction. "Remember this was in the late 1970s and most people probably looked at him as a little strange."
Robinson would be influenced further as an intern when he began working with chemically dependent patients in Boston. "I began to appreciate just how important it was to understand the body and soul, treating them together."
After receiving his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, Robinson returned home to Nashville where he earned a Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1986 after completing his thesis on the relationship between faith and healing.
Since 1991, Robinson has split his time between Nashville and Memphis. As pastor and chief executive of St. Andrew AME Church in Memphis, Robinson has helped implement community programs that have targeted education, alcohol and drug prevention, family enrichment, and childcare services. He founded The Works, Inc., a community housing development organization that addresses the construction and rehabilitation of 30 single-family homes and an 80-unit apartment community.
He served for six years as the chairman of the Tennessee Department of Health's Black Health Care Task Force and has served as a citizen advisor on minority health issues before being appointed commissioner by Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen in 2003.
Through all the years and accomplishments, Robinson is most proud of specific endeavors.
"I am very proud of being able to apply the model of primary care medicine to the care of inner city African-American communities. This has happened, in part, through private and public partnerships and through partnerships with academic medical institutions."
Along with his community work, Robinson has mentored more than 200 African-American students and helped them into medical schools. "I am especially proud of the young men and women who are now out there practicing medicine; contributing to a diverse workforce and returning to work in their communities."
Behind it all is his unwavering message of eliminating the ethnic and racial disparities that still exist. "I've tried to be consistent; for I believe the future of the health status of racial and ethnic minorities rests in finding practical, functional, integrated and holistic approaches to health promotion and healthcare in these communities."
Robinson has been married for 27 years to Rev. Marilynn Sasportas Robinson, MPH, a senior vice president at Saint Francis Hospital in Memphis and co-pastor at St. Andrew.
His twin daughters, Maisha and Nuriya, are both Princeton alumnae and are currently finishing medical degrees at Tufts University.
"I am so excited about the girls. Maisha is leaning towards the academic side of medicine; while Nuriya is in Africa this year, delivering babies and interested in pursuing an ob/gyn specialty."
He laughed heartily as he wondered aloud how his girls have found their current paths. It is no wonder, considering Robinson's influence, and ultimately seems fitting in the greater circle of his life.