Monday, June 22, 2009

In Remembrance of Phil Browning

Today I wish to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the passing of a great friend and teacher. Philip Juan Browning was raised by a hard working family in Gary, Indiana. His mother saw to it with iron will that her children finished high school and proceeded to college. Phil attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, exactly at a time when Black Power gained traction. Philip became an activist in the Black Panther youth movement.

After some less encouraging experiences and contemplation, Phil decided to leave the Panthers and take the path Dr. King had pointed out. He opted to run the gamut of institutions, becoming one of at the time select number of African Americans accepted for medical training at Tufts University School of Medicine. He went on to Harvard Medical School for training in internal medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He received his training in oncology and hematology at the Dana Faber Cancer Institute in Boston and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) outside Washington, D.C. At the NCI, he worked in the laboratory of Robert Gallo, under whose leadership the first test for AIDS was developed. Phil eventually accepted a faculty position at Vanderbilt University to continue his research and practice medicine.

Phil was not only a talented scientist and a great physician. He also was a man with a mission. He embarked on his career with fierce determination. He wanted to prove to the world that it was indeed possible in this country with tenacity and perseverance to take the most difficult hurdles and achieve the extraordinary, only to put his achievements into the service of people who needed his help. Phil cared about his students. He was an active member of his church where he mentored the young to the very end of his day.

I remember enlightened and sometimes heated conversations with Phil over lunch about science, Chicago, the Panthers, the African American experience, and contemporary politics. Based on my teutonic upbringing, I am predisposed to mulling decisions many times over. I tend to look for reasons why not to do something, posing the question, "is this a wise thing to do?" Phil would look out of the window with a frown until I was finished with my litany of excuses, turn back to me, flashing a huge smile, and reply: "Why not?"

Phil passed peacefully after a long and valiant battle with colon cancer. He never lost faith. In my deepest moments of doubt, I still hear Phil exclaim: "Why not?"

A memorial fund was instituted in his honor at Vanderbilt University to support African American post graduate students and a clinical service will be named for him this year.

I wrote a poem for him on the occasion of his 50th birthday, a bright and sunny day at the beginning of May that a big crowd of friends and family enjoyed in his backyard. Phil sang Motown songs for his wife Renee and was really good at it.

Be patient and let the magic ink do its work:

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