CHICAGO — Transplant surgeon Clive Callender has hurtful memories of being the only black doctor at medical meetings in the 1970s, met with stark silence when he pleaded for better access to transplant organs for blacks.
So when the American Medical Association formally apologized Thursday for more than a century of policies that excluded blacks from a group long considered the voice of American doctors, it was belated, but still welcome.
"My attitude is not one of bitterness, but one of gratefulness that finally they have seen the error of their ways," said Callender, now 71 and a respected leader at Howard University Hospital in Washington.
It wasn't until the 1960s that AMA delegates took a strong stance against policies dating to the 1800s that barred blacks from some state and local medical societies.
Until then, AMA delegates had resisted pleas to speak out forcefully against discrimination or to condemn the smaller medical groups, which historically have had a big role in shaping AMA policy.
While the AMA itself didn't have a formal policy barring black doctors, physicians were required to be members of the local groups to participate in the AMA, said Dr. Ronald Davis, the group's immediate past president.
In a statement on its Web site, the AMA apologized "for its past history of racial inequality toward African-American physicians, and shares its current efforts to increase the ranks of minority physicians and their participation in the AMA."
The apology is among initiatives at the nation's largest doctors' group to reduce racial disparities in medicine and to recruit more blacks to become doctors and to join the AMA.
AMA data suggest fewer than 2 percent of its members are black, and that fewer than 3 percent of the nation's 1 million medical students and physicians are black.
The National Medical Association, a black doctors' group, said AMA's history of discrimination has contributed to health disparities for blacks that continue today.
"These persistent, race-based health disparities have led to a precipitous decline in the health of African-Americans when compared to their white counterparts and the population as a whole," said Dr. Nedra Joyner, head of the board of trustees for the black doctors' association.