Dr Delano Meriwether


Medical miracle

Meriwether beats all odds on track and life

Hematologist Delano Meriwether shocked the track and field world when he won the 100-yard dash at the AAU championships in 1971 by running a wind-aided 9.0 (below) while wearing swim trunks and suspenders.


BERWICK, Pa. - Sprinters like action. They like to move in bursts, getting in and getting out, engaging their fast-twitch souls in the crucible of the moment. So maybe it should be no surprise to see the doctor on duty here, in the emergency room of Berwick Hospital Center, a plain one-story building with long linoleum hallways, not far from the Susquehanna River.
“Sprinters aren’t people who sit back and say, ‘Well, let me think about this while I run around the track eight times,’” the doctor says, smiling.

He is an angular figure in blue scrubs and white coat, his hair flecked with gray, his gait bouncy and athletic, even at 63, even with almost four decades of distance from the nine seconds that made him an international sensation - a self-coached Everyman in suspenders.

Eight steps inside the sliding ER doors, Dr. Delano Meriwether is moving among eight rooms, dispensing care, mending bodies, doing it with his customary low-key charisma. In Room 2 is a sweet-faced baby with pneumonia, and an antibiotic IV he is not happy about. In Room 7 is a heavy-set woman with a severely infected and discolored lower leg, and across the hall is another woman, suffering from acute bronchitis.

None of the patients are aware that their attending physician is an iconic figure in the annals of track and field, a racial ground-breaker, a son of the segregated South who became the Jackie Robinson of the Duke University School of Medicine. Nor do they know of him being honored in a couple of weeks as part of a Garden gala commemorating the 100th running of the Millrose Games.

Delano Meriwether certainly isn’t going to be the one to tell them.

“He doesn’t talk about himself at all,” says his son Delano Meriwether Jr., a senior at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think there’s been one time where he said, ‘Come here and sit down and let’s talk about the old days.’”

George Knox is an attorney in Miami, a friend of Meriwether’s dating to their freshman year at Michigan State.

“There is not one part of him that seeks to be a martyr or a hero,” Knox says.

It has been 35 years since Delano Jr.'s father was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, bent into the starting blocks beneath the headline, “The Amazing Dr. Meriwether.” It has been nearly a quarter-century since he and his South African wife, Nomvimbi, a pioneer in her own right (she was the first black female lawyer in South Africa), began a seven-year stay in the rural homelands outside Soweto, delivering care and comfort to villagers shackled by a vicious Vise-Grip of poverty and apartheid.

Named in honor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Meriwether Sr. will spend Martin Luther King Day working a 24-hour shift in the ER here, continuing his own New Deal, one patient at a time. He decided a long time ago that his career goals in medicine did not include a conventional practice with conventional hours, a country-club membership or a new Mercedes every two years. Meriwether is by no means deprived - all three of his children have attended private schools and the family lives in a handsome home in Potomac, Md. - but mostly he regards material things as irrelevant. Meriwether has two good suits, shops for clothes every 20 years or so. He makes the three-hour drive here in a 12-year-old Mitsubishi compact, without MD plates.

“I want to be as effective as possible, and I try to do that by specializing in little people,” he says, quickly adding that he puts himself in the same category.

Delano Meriwether isn’t just a man disinclined to follow the crowd. He has spent a lifetime breaking free of it. Born in Nasvhille, he was raised by his educator parents in Charleston, S.C., a town so segregated that Meriwether never considered walking in the white and well-heeled downtown. Separate and unequal was how things were. Whites and blacks had separate bus stations, water fountains, schools. The first time Meriwether had a white classmate was his freshman year at Michigan State, in 1960, and he made certain he did not fall behind. He wasn’t going to return to the South as a failure. He was either in class or studying, 14 or 16 hours a day.
“It was an almost monastic lifestyle he had,” Knox says. “He’d study all the time, then do his laundry on Saturday morning.”

Meriwether graduated in three years and was admitted to a host of elite Northern medical schools, before his father insisted he look into Duke.

“Why would I want to come back to the South?” Delano protested. He agreed to apply and flew down to Durham, N.C. late in the spring of 1963. It was a Sunday, early in the evening. He hadn’t eaten all day. The school cafeteria had just closed. Wearing a suit and tie, Meriwether walked a half-mile to an upscale roadside restaurant called The Blue Lite. There was a blue neon sign out front. Another sign, over the door, read, “Whites Only.” Meriwether walked in and sat at the counter.

“You can’t sit here,” the waitress said. “We can’t serve you. You can go to the side window if you want something.” Meriwether didn’t move. A beefy, thick-necked man in an apron came out from the back. He was the owner, a former Duke football player. He leaned over the counter.

“If you don’t get your ass out of here, you are going to live to regret this,” the owner said. Meriwether stood up, rage rising with him. He looked hard at the menacing face before him. He got off the stool and walked out.

“I didn’t feel compelled to confront him, verbally or physically,” Meriwether says. “That wasn’t quite my style.”

Meriwether went to bed hungry. He barely slept. He couldn’t wait to get out of the South. He had his interview the next day, and then walked the corridors of the hospital and passed the bathrooms, all four of them: two for whites, two for blacks. Was he really going to go to a medical school where he couldn’t use the white bathroom? In that moment, the answer came.

Yes, he was.

“I just felt that I couldn’t allow this to continue,” Meriwether says. “I didn’t set out to be a pioneer. It was more a question of asking myself, ‘If I make it through this school, can I possibly help someone besides myself and my patients?’”

Delano Meriwether enrolled in Duke University School of Medicine in the fall. By then the bathroom count was down to two. He was the only African-American student throughout his four years at the med school.

Meriwether went on to do his internship at the University of Pennsylvania, and his residency at Ohio State, specializing in hematology, leukemia and sickle-cell anemia. In 1969 he went to work at the Baltimore Cancer Research Center, and it was there, as a nocturnal respite from research and lab work, that he took to running.

At 6-2, 165 pounds, with long, sinewy muscles, Meriwether knew he was fast. At Michigan State, Knox says, “he’d run on grass in high-top sneakers and run faster than the guys on the track team.” But this wasn’t about a competitive urge. It was about staying fit, relieving stress. Meriwether would run the stairs of his apartment building, and then discovered the Johns Hopkins track that was near his lab. Around 8 p.m., he’d hop the barbed-wire fence around the track and start doing 100-meter sprints. He could feel himself getting fitter, running faster. In the summer of 1970, he heard about a local all-comers meet, and decided to enter it. He put on a gold Speedo swimsuit, a white hospital shirt and gold and white suspenders, because, well, he didn’t mind being different.

“They weren’t regular suspenders. They were racing suspenders,” Meriwether says, laughing.

He wound up winning the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds. In a subsequent meet he lowered his time to 9.4. In the winter of 1970-71, he entered a much more competitive event at Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, and clocked 6.0 in the 60, beating U.S. record-holder Mal Pender. The buzz around him began to build. Reporters wanted to know all about the world’s fastest hematologist. He told them about the fence-hopping, and his coach. “A guy named Meriwether,” the doctor said. Soon he was crouching on the cover of SI, and scoring his biggest triumph of all, at the age of 28, capturing the 1971 national AAU 100-yard championship in Eugene, Ore. in a stunning, wind-aided clocking of 9.0.

“In the history of track and field, I can’t think of anyone doing anything comparable to what he did,” says Walt Murphy, a noted track and field historian. Meriwether surely would’ve been among the Olympic favorites in Munich the next year, before a hamstring injury sidelined him - not that he was terribly distraught about it.

“My purpose in running wasn’t to be in the Olympics. It was to attain fitness and improve myself mentally,” Meriwether says.

A year later, one class after Colin Powell, Meriwether was selected to be a White House Fellow, a prestigious leadership and public-service program. The distinctions kept coming. He won research awards, did a Harvard fellowship at Boston City Hospital, enrolled at Johns Hopkins to get his master’s in public health, along with an important perk.

“I didn’t have to hop the fence anymore,” Meriwether says.

The more Meriwether learned about health care, the more committed he was to serving the underserved. He and his wife headed for South Africa, Meriwether working as a missionary doctor, seeing squalor and disease that he couldn’t fathom. He earned $200 a month, caring for entire families ravaged by tuberculosis and typhoid fever by day, driving 18-wheelers full of food and medical supplies by night. If his commitment ever wavered, he’d think about the young mother from Mozambique who showed up at their door after walking 150 miles to flee the violence of the civil war in her homeland. She had a baby on her back. She asked Nomvimbi if she could borrow a shovel. Nomvimbi, who speaks nine African languages, said sure.

And then the Meriwethers watched the woman dig a hole, take off her knapsack and bury her dead baby in the hard South African earth.

The Meriwethers remained in South Africa almost until Nelson Mandela - Meriwether’s greatest hero - was released from prison in February, 1990. The family - now with three children - returned to the U.S., and Meriwether began working as an emergency-room physician.

“No matter how much misery he saw and was surrounded by, he has never lost his spirit of lightness and believing that somehow he could still do good work,” Knox says. “This is who he is and what he does.”

Delano Meriwether can’t sit still when he talks. His body contorts, his hands intertwine, and when he gets excited - which is often - his voice rises almost to a cackle. His physique has scarcely changed from his running days, and he still works out regularly, climbing the steps of Maryland’s Byrd Stadium. He does it 10 times every workout. “It’s good to push yourself,” he says.
During a two-hour lunch in suburban Washington, Meriwether talks about everything from suspenders to segregation, to the abundance of his and his wife’s blessings. Their oldest daughter, Fortune, has graduated from Stanford and is planning to go to medical school herself. Daughter Nano is a senior at UCLA, a volleyball All-American who is one of four finalists for national Player of the Year honors. Delano Jr., who has run a 22.3 200 meters, may well end up at Stanford, too. All three children were born in Africa, and all have made regular trips back, working in orphanages, or with AIDS victims.

After he finishes a plate of rice and wings, Dr. Delano Meriwether returns to his car to find the meter expired and a $35 parking ticket under the wiper. He seems completely unfazed.

“I’ll tell you when I worry. Not often,” Meriwether says.

Soon he is on his way here, to one of the two emergency rooms he works in, in small towns, where he feels wanted, and needed. Sprinters like action. Here is where he finds it. Dr. Delano Meriwether smiles, and his hands start moving, just as his voice begins heading up. “I like to be on the front lines,” he says. “It’s about helping little people wherever you can.”

Originally published on January 14, 2007

Kitkat, thanks for that. Its inspiring. I think I will do a school assembly on Delano.


The Dr. Meriwether Saga
Monday, Jul. 12, 1971 Article ToolsPrintEmail

Baltimore. July 1970. Dr. Delano Meriwether, a 27-year-old hematologist, is stretched out on his bed watching a telecast of a track meet between the U.S. and France. He stares intently at the 100-meter dash, turns to his wife Myrtle and says, “Hey, I think I can beat those guys.” Myrtle nods and mutters, “Sure, honey.”

Eugene, Ore. June 1971. Meriwether, improbably garbed in gold swim trunks, a white hospital shirt and gold-and-white-striped suspenders, steps into the starting blocks for the 100-yd. dash in the A.A.U. championships. The gun sounds. Meriwether streaks for the tape with great, loping strides and wins, in the astonishing time of 9 sec. flat, a mark equaled by only one other man in history, the U.S.'s John Carlos.*

Newest Folk Hero. Neither Mitty nor Merriwell would have believed the Meriwether saga. But it is undeniably true that track’s newest folk hero never raced in competition until a year ago. Meriwether explains that his high school in Charleston, S.C., had no track team, and the football team had no use for “a guy who was 6 ft. tall and weighed 135 lbs.” At Michigan State, where he studied pre-med on a scholarship, his only brush with organized sports was a few hot games of volleyball. The first black accepted into Duke University School of Medicine, he specialized in blood diseases, and in 1969 took a job at the Baltimore Cancer Research Center. While caring for and becoming “personally involved” with young leukemia victims, he says, he desperately needed a diversion. For “exercise and entertainment,” he decided to run for fun.

Meriwether’s training methods have been unconventional, to say the least. He began by running up the 14 flights of his apartment building. Often he would run up the stairs in reverse—a sight that soon had neighbors asking who was the backward freak in the knee-length white coat? “It seemed like I’d always pass women returning home with the groceries,” he recalls. Borrowing a pair of track shoes, he started working out late at night at a nearby outdoor track. He practiced alone in the dark with no coach, no blocks and no starter’s pistol. “It’s unsafe,” he says, “to practice with a gun in Baltimore after 10 p.m.”

Back to the Lab. Since he had no stopwatch either. Meriwether had no idea how fast he was until he began competing in local meets last summer. “No one was more surprised than I was,” he says, when he ran successive 100-yd. dashes in 9.6, 9.5 and 9.4 sec. In Meriwether’s first major meet, the National Invitational in College Park, Md., in January, a field of world-class sprinters got an even bigger surprise. He won the 60-yd. dash in 6 sec. flat, just one-tenth of a second off the world record, despite a characteristically poor start. Troubled by pulled muscles, and unable to train more than two or three nights a week, Meriwether won only 2 of 12 races before his triumph in the A.A.U. 100. “I’ve never been frustrated by defeat,” he says. “If I don’t win, I know I can go back to the lab, to my patients, to television.”

Last week, after winning a U.S. Public Health Service award for co-authoring a paper entitled “The Inhibiting of DNA and RNA Synthesis by Dau-norubicin and Adriamycin in 1-1210 Mouse Leukemia,” Meriwether moved to a new job at the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory in Boston. “I haven’t talked to my new employer,” he says. “He may not dig track.” A more important question is whether Meriwether digs competing in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. “First things come first,” he says. “My family and my work. But whether I do or don’t compete, I’ll always jog and enjoy it.”

  • Since both clockings were “wind-aided” (run in winds that exceeded the 4.47 m.p.h. limit), they are not recognized as the official world record, which is 9.1 and is shared by Carlos and four other sprinters.