Longtime Nashville doctor still making difference across country

Dr. Henry Foster

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – At the age of 83, Dr. Henry Foster is still making a difference. He’s the author of an autobiography and still teaches, writes and travels.

“It’s not work for me. I enjoy it,” he said. “You find a job you never have to work a day in your life.”

Foster started medical school when he was 20 years old, earning a degree from the University of Arkansas. After post-graduate training, he turned down a lucrative job in Seattle to work in one of the poorest parts of America – the John A.

Andrews Memorial at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.

“There was no Medicare, no Medicaid,” Dr. Henry recalled. “I personally delivered 8,000 babies. How I know that is very simple. I averaged three deliveries a day, that’s 1,000 a year. I was there eight years.”

Foster organized regional clinics to provide prenatal and postnatal care twice a month. It then became a model for the rest of the country.

“That’s when I made my biggest contribution to clinical medicine in my life,” he said.

Dr. Henry’s mission to serve the people of American forgot brought him back to the place of his medical residency – Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

“I can imprint hundreds of thousands of students and residents and I can cast bread on the water and let it disseminate. And that’s basically what I did,” he said.

Working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Foster created the “I Have a Future” program for at-risk inner city youth. President George W. Bush selected it as one of the nation’s “thousand points of light.”

Because of its focus on reducing teen pregnancy, President Bill Clinton nominated Dr. Foster to be his U.S. Surgeon General.

“I learned I happen to have what was being looked for,” Foster said. “I wasn’t anything real special. There were a lot of people who were terribly qualified to fill that position so that’s important to understand – you’re not really that special, just different. Then I learned it’s a blood sport, it’s about politics and numbers.”

The senate confirmation hearing was mired in the abortion debate. In the end, the committee recommended confirmation, but conservatives blocked a vote by the full senate.

Foster said he has no regrets and he became senior advisor to the president on teen pregnancy reduction and youth issues.

“It put me in a position to make a difference. It placed me in a position to make things happen. I had been trying to make things happen my entire life for the better and it wound up doing that,” he said.

Foster said his safety became a concern when a New York abortion doctor was assassinated in 1998.

“A man shot and killed him with a high-powered rifle [while he was] standing in his kitchen fixing his dinner,” he said.

President Clinton ultimately ordered a federal marshal protection.

“For four months they had to shadow me every place I went around the country. On every air flight there were two marshals on the plane with me. I went to the john, they went with me.”

Dr. Foster said his work is not done yet, but when it is, he hopes to be remembered as someone who tried to make the world a better place and someone who made a difference.

Click here for more of Anne Holt’s Tennessee stories.