Dr. Saunders, 80, who had been ailing for some time, was an internationally-renowned expert on hypertension in African Americans. He was consistently recognized for his pioneering patient education efforts to raise awareness of high blood pressure, and of the connection between diabetes, heart attack and stroke, particularly in the African American community. He devoted his career to exploring new treatment options and developing innovative programs to reach patients –often in non-traditional settings in the local community – and to educating at-risk members of the population about the importance of cardiovascular health.
Dr. Saunders developed his clinical and leadership skills at a time when there were few African American colleagues, and even fewer mentors within the field of medicine. He became the first African American resident in internal medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1960, and the first African American cardiologist in the state of Maryland in 1965. He was also integral in abolishing segregated hospital wards at what was then University Hospital (now the University of Maryland Medical Center). Despite the challenges, Dr. Saunders followed his own vision for equality in health care, and became a compassionate leader for what was, at the time, an often overlooked patient population.
“The School of Medicine joins together with the entire University of Maryland Community to mourn the loss of this great pioneer and visionary. In particular, we extend our sincerest condolences to his wife, Dr. Sharon Saunders, and family,” said Dean Reece, who is Vice President, Medical Affairs, the University of Maryland and the John Z. and Akiko Bowers Distinguished Professor.
“Dr. Saunders transitioned with the grace and dignity that was symbolic of how he carried himself each day. He was a giant, a legend who leaves a legacy that will always live on in the hearts and minds of many of us at the School of Medicine. We will strive to uphold and honor his dedication to science and medicine and his lifelong efforts to respect and preserve every human life,” Dean Reece added.
Clinician and Researcher
After operating a successful private practice for the first 20 years of his career, Dr. Saunders became a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he pursued research on hypertension among African Americans. He was for many years, head of the Hypertension Division in the Department of Medicine. His research showed that some blood pressure medications are more effective for African Americans. As a result of his findings, drug companies often require African Americans to be included in research in general and particularly those relative to cardiovascular conditions. Over his career, he published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and eight books.
“Dr. Saunders was the true definition of the ‘healing physician,' “said Jeffrey A. Rivest, MS, President and Chief Executive Officer of the University of Maryland Medical Center. “His positive demeanor and caring disposition for each and every one of his patients combined with his passion and persistence in finding a cure, made him one of the most revered doctors in Maryland history. He was a tremendous model for all of us in health care to follow.”
In the UM SOM Department of Medicine, Chair Stephen N. Davis, MBBS, and Cardiovascular Division Head Sanjay Rajagopalan, MBBS, remembered Dr. Saunders as a selfless leader.
“Dr. Elijah Saunders is a great loss, “said Dr. Davis, who is the Theodore E. Woodward Endowed Chair, and the Professor and Chairman of the Department. “He was an innovative and inspirational leader.”
Added Dr. Rajagopalan, who is Professor of Medicine and Division Head, Cardiovascular Medicine at the UM SOM: “We have been proud to have Dr. Saunders as part of our faculty and to lead our hypertension program. Indeed, we are eternally indebted to him for his selfless contribution by continuing to provide uncompensated care for patients in our clinic for more than a decade,” he said.
A Legacy of Leadership
Dr. Saunders was a founding member, past chairman of the board, and past president of the Association of Black Cardiologists; past president, chairman of the board, and founder of both the International Society of Hypertension in Blacks (ISHIB), and the (former) Urban Cardiology Research Center, Inc. He was the co-founder of Heart House of the American College of Cardiology; a charter member of the American Society of Hypertension; past president of the Maryland High Blood Pressure Coordinating Council; former commissioner of the Maryland High Blood Pressure Commission; and chairman, Maryland Advisory Council on High Blood Pressure and related Cardiovascular Risk Factors.
n 2006, he developed the Hair, Heart and Health program, an effort to bring awareness of heart disease to African American communities via barbers and hairstylists. This work received national and international attention and continues to train barbers and hairstylists to pre-screen customers for hypertension, and make referrals for medical care.
In 2011, he received the prestigious Herbert W. Nickens Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges. The award honors those who make outstanding contributions to promote justice in medical education and health care equality. In the same year, he was featured in a documentary commissioned by the Diabetes Awareness Project, called “Faces of Diabetes.”
Dr. Saunders was born in Baltimore City in 1934. He received a BS degree from Morgan State College in 1956, and received his MD degree from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1960, where he was one of only four African-Americans in a class of 140. He was a resident in internal medicine and a fellow in cardiology at the University of Maryland Hospital from 1960 to 1965.
He was to receive the Dean’s Distinguished Gold Medal at the upcoming 2015 SOM Graduation exercises for his exemplary life and work. The SOM Office of Development and the Department of Medicine were working toward finalizing funds to establish a $1.5M Elijah Saunders Endowed Professorship in recognition of his lifetime of accomplishments.
“Dr. Saunders’ passing only strengthens our resolve to honor his legacy by establishing a permanent mechanism to remember his contributions,” Dean Reece said.