Mary Starke Harper

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Mary Starke Harper (September 6, 1919 – July 27, 2006) was an African American nurse who worked in bedside nursing, nurse research and health policy.[1] She spent several years working for the Department of Veterans Affairs.[2] She performed clinical research on the geriatric psychiatric population and minority health.[3] In 1972, Harper created the NIMH Minority Fellowship Program.[3] She served on four presidential administration advisory panels with regards to mental health and health care reform.[3] She died in 2006 as the recipient of several honors and author of over 180 publications.[4][5]

Early life[edit]

Mary Starke Harper was born in Fort Mitchell, Alabama on September 6, 1919 and later moved to Phenix City.[1] She was the oldest of seven other siblings in her family.[1] As a child, she enjoyed reading, studying[1] and raising mice to sell to nearby laboratories and hospitals.[2] Though her parents wanted her to settle down as a housewife, she decided to attend pursue a business administration degree at Tuskegee Institute.[2] Her father died when she was in college and after his passing she switched her major to nursing.[3] She later became George Washington Carver’s private nurse before he died in 1943.[3]


Mary Starke Harper attended Tuskegee Institute and earned a diploma in nursing in 1941.[1] She later applied to several bachelor’s programs in the late 1940s. The University of Alabama rejected Harper’s application on the basis of her race[6] and she decided to attend the University of Minnesota instead, a school which at the time had never had a black woman graduate from their program.[6][5] In 1950, she graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in education.[1][5] In 1952, she earned her master’s degree with honors in nursing education and educational psychology.[1][5][7] In 1963, Harper graduated from St. Louis University with a doctorate in medical sociology and clinical psychology.[1][7]

Tuskegee Syphilis Study[edit]

When Harper 19-years-old and enrolled at Tuskegee Institute earning her diploma in nursing, she volunteered at the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” [1][8] As a young nurse, she did not know the extent of the study or that several of her patients were denied treatment.[3][5] In 2003, approximately 60 years later, Harper recounted, “I was very angry that they had me, a black person, doing something bad to black men.” [3][1] She claimed her involvement in the study sparked her interest in the treatment of minority populations.[1][2] This experience prompted her to become an advocate for minority health care for both geriatric and psychiatric populations.[2] Later, she assumed a teaching role and trained minority patients about informed consent and the importance of asking questions about research before agreeing to participate.[1]

Veterans Administration Hospital employment[edit]

After earning her nursing license, Harper began working as a registered nurse at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital.[2] She spent over thirty years working with the Department of Veterans Affairs over her career.[9][1] She moved every few years to a new hospital under the Veterans Affairs headquarters.[6] In total, Harper moved nine times.[6] In 1952, Harper became the nursing director at the VA in Tuskegee.[1] Through these years as a bedside nurse, she cared for patients with chronic, debilitating mental illnesses.[2] She developed hospital wide initiatives to engage family members in patient care and normalize patient admission stays by allowing street clothing, diet adjustments and altered medication regimens.[2] Harper later worked at VA hospitals in Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Missouri conducting clinical research and educating staff about treatment program improvements.[1][2]

Family life[edit]

In 1943, Mary Starke Harper married Willie F. Harper at the age of 24. They had one daughter, Billye Louise Harper, in 1944.[3] As Harper moved to different cities as a result of her research, she prioritized her family.[6] She had two requirements for the moves: that her husband be offered a job comparable to the one he would be leaving and that the time frame coincided with the end of her daughter's school year.[6] Her husband, Willie, died in 1963 and her daughter, Billye, also died in 1969 at the age of 25.[3][10] Later, Harper's sister passed away and from 1972 to 1998, Harper moved to Washington, DC to raise her sister's three sons and care for her elderly mother.[3][8][10]

Geriatric psychiatric research and accomplishments[edit]

Harper began her clinical research career learning about the elderly population.[3] She was a member of several professional organizations including the American Psychological Association and the Society of Clinical Geropsychology.[10] In 1982, she attended the World Assembly on Aging in Vienna and presented her research on long-term care for the elderly.[7][5] She found that often, elderly patients had mental illnesses that went undiagnosed.[3] These patients were at risk for being improperly treated in institutional homes.[3] Harper noted that overmedication and drug interactions posed significant problems for this population.[3] In 2003, she shifted the focus of her research to caregiver burden.[3] Even though family members provided 90% of long-term care for elderly patients, Harper realized there was no organized system in place to support those families.[3]

As an African American nurse, Harper was a pioneer researcher investigating health disparities within racial and ethnic minorities and exposing the failures of the health system.[2] Tuskegee University developed an endowed chair in geropsychiatric nursing in Harper's name.[11] Additionally, in 2001, hospital administration in Tuscaloosa, Alabama named the Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatric Center in her honor.[11][10] This hospital contained 126 beds to care for the mentally ill elderly population.[10]

National Institute of Mental Health Minority Fellowship Program[edit]

After working as a clinical nurse, Harper joined the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1972.[3] Over the following years, she earned a senior position.[7] With the NIMH, Harper established research and development centers throughout the country dedicated to mental health research and improvement.[11] She organized the NIH Minority Fellowship Program in 1972.[3] Harper claimed her primary reason for implementing the fellowship program was her involvement in the Tuskegee project.[3] Since its development in the 1970s, the program has educated over 12,000 doctors, scientists, nurses, psychologists, social workers and other health professionals.[3][11][1][10]

Health policy involvement[edit]

Harper worked 28 years for the US Department of Health and Human Services.[9] With her knowledge of mental health and aging, she served as a consultant in all 50 states of the US, most US territories, and 21 countries.[7] She served on White House advisory panels during four presidential administrations: Clinton, Reagan, Bush and Carter.[3] In these roles, she consulted with the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Mental Health Association, Johnson & Johnson drug manufacturers, and the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, among others.[3] From 1979-1981, during President Carter's administration, Harper was the director of the Office of Policy Development and Research for White House Conference on Aging.[2][6] At this time, she was the first woman to hold this title.[6] She continued to serve as director through Reagan and Bush's presidencies.[6] When President Clinton came into office, Harper was instrumental in the development of the Clinton Mental Health and Public Sector Task Force for Health Care Reform.[6][10] In 1995, she served as a consultant for the White House Conference on Aging.[10]


Mary Starke Harper's research focused on geriatric and psychiatric nursing.[5] She studied depression, delirium, Alzheimer's, suicide, and overmedication in the elderly.[5] Harper noticed that elderly patients were often over-prescribed medications and this impacted their health both clinically and socially.[5] She also studied the elderly population living alone and how chronic diseases impact lifestyles.[5] Within the psychiatric research scope, Harper focused on mental health, substance abuse, schizophrenia, and healthcare in prisons.[5] Additionally she studied recidivism within these populations.[7] Harper recognized that patients returning to the hospital for multiple admissions were a failure on behalf of the health system and treatment plan.[7] A hallmark of her research was incorporating family members into the treatment plan.[6] She also studied minorities in healthcare and ethical issues surrounding disparities in minority populations.[5]


Harper wrote more than 180 journal articles and five books with regards to her research.[3][11][5] The bulk of her publications occurred between 1972–1988.[5]

Awards and honors[edit]

Mary Starke Harper earned numerous awards in her time as nurse and researcher.[12][11][4] The Tuskegee Institute recognized Harper as Best All Around Nurse, Scholastically and Clinically.[12] In 1963, she earned the Federal Nursing Service Award from the Association of Military Surgeons of the US.[12] The Veterans Affairs awarded Harper the Surgeon General's Medal of Honor twice for her patient advocacy.[11] In 1966, Harper was inducted into Chi Eta Phi Sorority and recognized for her outstanding achievements.[12] In 1970, the Tuskegee Institute selected Harper to receive the Alumni Merit Award.[12] In 2001, Harper won the Living Legacy Award in Aging from the American Academy of Nursing.[4][1] At the ANA convention, she received the Mary Mahoney Award which commended a nurse who advanced equal opportunities for minority groups.[12]

Later years[edit]

Mary Starke Harper lived in Washington, D.C. until 1998 before moving back to Columbus, Georgia.[3] She died of cancer on July 27, 2006.[4] She was 86 years old.[4] Her papers can be found at the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q McLellan, Dennis (2006-08-15). "Mary S. Harper, 86; Expert on Mental Health, Aging Lamented Role in Tuskegee Syphilis Study". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Issue Archive - Minority Nurse Magazine". Minority Nurse. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x Schudel, Matt (2006-08-05). "Mary Harper; Leader in Minority Health". ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Faculty NOTES". Nursing Education Perspectives. 27 (5): 281. September 2006. ISSN 1536-5026.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Mary Starke Harper papers, 1972-1988". Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Berg, Ellen (February 1995). "Key Figure in NIMH Minority Fellowship Program Retires: Mary Starke Harper Sociologist Extraordinaire". American Sociological Association. 23: 3.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Meet Mary Harper". Journal of Psychosocial Nursing. 31: Issue 8. 1993.
  8. ^ a b Santo-Novak, Debra A; Grissom, Kathy R; Powers, Richard E (2001-02-01). "Mary Starke Harper "I Love Doing the Impossible"". Journal of Gerontological Nursing. 27 (2): 12–14. doi:10.3928/0098-9134-20010201-09. ISSN 0098-9134.
  9. ^ a b Harper, Mary (2001). "Panel 3". Women's Health Issues. 11 (1): 50–55. doi:10.1016/s1049-3867(00)00087-6.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Niederehe, George (2007). "Mary Starke Harper (1919-2006)". American Psychologist. 62 (9): 1071. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.62.9.1071.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g "Dr. Mary Harper | Capstone College of Nursing - The University of Alabama". Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  12. ^ a b c d e f "Outstanding nurses honored at ANA Convention in Hawaii". AORN Journal. 28 (3): 416–417. 1978-09-01. doi:10.1016/s0001-2092(07)61633-0. ISSN 1878-0369.