On the Occasion of the Rededication of the Dr. Howard P. Venable Park

On September 18, 2021, the city of Creve Coeur honored medical pioneer, Dr. Howard P. Venable, by rededicating Beirne Park to Dr. H. Phillip Venable Memorial Park, after his family’s land was acquired by eminent domain in the 1950s due to their race.

Dr. Will Ross, professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, delivered the keynote address at the rededication event. Below is an abbreviated version of Dr. Ross’s keynote address.

We are here on this beautiful Saturday morning to celebrate a great man, Dr. Howard P. Venable. In 1956, Dr. Venable, a widely-respected, nationally renowned ophthalmologist and his wife Katie, like any other family in America, dreamed of building a home here in the suburbs. They were denied that opportunity. The difference between them and other families living in the developing subdivision of Spoede Meadows was the color of their skin. We have heard as to why we are here today and I will not repeat all of it. Let me tell you a little about this great man. Through the undermining efforts of the Creve Coeur “Citizens Committee on Parks,” the home they constructed was never lived in, as his property was taken by eminent domain when the Venables refused to sell it first to their white neighbors, and later to the City. The Venables fought a 3-year battle in the Missouri courts, all to no avail. The City then named the Park after newly re-elected Mayor John Beirne, who led the efforts of the white neighbors to exclude the Venables.

The moral arc of the universe does bend toward justice. Starting in 2019, the Creve Coeur community and St. Louis began a journey to learn and acknowledge the Park’s racist history and take meaningful steps towards the goal of social justice. Through the collective efforts of forward thinking organizations and individuals, including the Venable Park Coalition, elected representatives of Creve Coeur, including former Mayor Glantz and current Mayor Bob Hoffman, members of the City’s Task Force, Shaare Emeth Congregation, and the Venable family, we have arrived here to address and help correct the injustice that Dr. Venable experienced.

Dr. Howard Venable is known for the revolutionary changes he made in the field of ophthalmology. Dr. Venable was born January 27, 1913 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, to mother, Agnes Hill, and father, William Venable. He moved to Detroit, Michigan as a child and spent most of his life there. He attended Wayne State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1933, and his medical degree, with honors, in 1940. Throughout his training years, Dr. Venable worked for 25 years as a professional musician to support himself, singing and playing the trumpet with artists such as Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington.

Dr. Venable wanted to pursue a career in Ophthalmology, but neither internships nor residencies were accessible to Blacks in Detroit at the time, so he applied for and secured an internship and Ophthalmology residency at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, Mo. The hospital was one of just a handful of Black hospitals in the United States that offered internships, residencies and specialty training to Black physicians.

In 1943, Dr. Venable became the first African American ophthalmologist to be awarded a Master of Science degree in Ophthalmology from New York University. In 1944, Dr. Venable passed the American Board of Ophthalmology Examination with the highest recorded score since its inception in 1917. He returned to St. Louis to join the Department of Ophthalmology at Homer G. Phillips Hospital. Dr. Venable also served as acting medical director of Homer G. Phillips Hospital and President of the Medical Staff in 1969. During his 36 years at Phillips, he taught and mentored more than 100 Ophthalmology residents, 39 of them African American students. His residents selected him as Teacher of the Year” for 1954, 1957, and 1958.

Dr. Venable knew that African Americans suffered from higher rates of eye diseases such as glaucoma and cataracts, and the residents he was training would be desperately needed in the Black communities. According to a colleague, Dr. Navin Amin, he also accepted and trained an equal number of foreign medical graduates, both men and women of color, many of whom dedicated their practices to the underserved populations throughout the US.

Dr. Venable had a special interest in glaucoma. In 1950, he spent several months at the University of Switzerland obtaining additional training in glaucoma. He published several medical papers, and his treatise on “Glaucoma in the Negro” is an important reference even today. In 1958, Dr. Venable joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis as its first African American staff member (a few prominent African American physicians had been offered privileges earlier). He later was promoted assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at Washington University.

In his time in St. Louis, Dr. Venable authored numerous editorials and letters in the local newspapers, advocating for equitable care for all patients. He spoke for all of us when he wrote “After every medical or surgical procedure, the attending doctor must ask: Did I treat this patient with the same compassion and respect that I would like to have a doctor administer to my wife or loved one in my family”. He also served as chair of Ophthalmology departments at three St. Louis hospitals: Phillips, St. Mary’s Infirmary and Peoples Hospital of St. Louis.

Dr. Venable left his position at Homer G. Phillips Hospital as chair of Ophthalmology in 1979 when Phillips closed due to funding issues, and in 1984 he and his wife Katie created the Venable Student Research Fund in Ophthalmology. The fund supported resident research projects and encouraged more Black students to join the Ophthalmology field. It also provided funding for housing and for needed equipment, such as microscopes. He also was one of the founders of the Roman Barnes Society. The society held social events for academic training institutions that were part of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. In 1984, the Oxford Congress of Ophthalmology inducted Dr. Venable as a fellow in recognition of his scholarly and scientific contributions.

Dr. Venable retired from practice in 1987. In 1994, he became the first African American to be awarded the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Outstanding Humanitarian Award. Dr. Howard Venable died August 8, 1998 in St. Louis, Missouri at the age of 85. The National Medical Association posthumously honored him when they created the Rabb-Venable Excellence in Ophthalmology Program, named in honor of Dr. Maurice Rabb, Jr. and Dr. Howard Phillip Venable, two pioneering African American ophthalmologists and researchers.

Many of us knew Dr. Venable as the consummate professional, tireless in his pursuit of excellence, and dedicated to providing the highest standard of care to all patients, irrespective of their ability to pay. Dr. Venable was also a man steeped in the ideals of social justice. In 1962, Dr. Venable created a storm of controversy when he accused 15 St. Louis area hospitals of excluding Black physicians from their staffs. At the time, he was accredited to eight hospitals. He also accused the St. Louis County Medical Society of excluding Blacks from membership. His advocacy led to most hospitals extending staff privileges to Black physicians.

I had the honor of getting to personally know Dr. Venable in 1990, when I was a member and later president of the Mound City Medical Forum, the association of African American physicians in the St. Louis region. Dr. Venable diligently attended our monthly meetings, along with other legends in medicine such as Drs. Frank Richards, James Whittico, Walter Washington, Jerome Williams Sr., Navin Amin, Les Bond Sr., and Homer Nash. Rather than sit at the table with my contemporaries, I realize how much I could learn from these physicians, so I was invited in as a compatriot. While I forgot the golf lessons they shared, I was struck by their camaraderie and their commitment to civil rights.

Dr. Venable once told me he had little patience for “weak-kneed advocates who keeled over at the first sign of resistance.” He was a serious man, who did not suffer fools and was not one for small talk. His demeanor reflected the weight of shouldering decades of slights, discrimination, and outright racism as he pushed for a more open and inclusive society. He frequently asked me if I was in this for the long haul. I said I was, and I could see by his satisfied nod that he was unquestionably a man who was unbought and unsold, an intellectual force, and an untiring champion of health equity. He blazoned the path for African Americans to excel in Ophthalmology, and left a legacy worthy of two lifetimes.

We hope this celebration impresses on us what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now”, the importance of speaking out against racial injustice, of aligning in the spirit of racial harmony to create a more just and equitable society, even at great personal sacrifice. Progress is being made, starting with the City of Creve Coeur in establishing a memorial in the Park which honors Dr. Venable and which will educate future generations of the important lessons from the Park’s tragic history. We are pleased with this memorial, and with efforts throughout the St. Louis region to highlight Dr. Venable’s legacy. Many will walk through this park, hear this story, and know that Dr. Howard Venable was a great man.

Will Ross, MD, MPH

Alumni Endowed Professor of Medicine
Washington University School of Medicine