A Country Doctor Who Blazed New Trails

Dr. Jim Jones, who helped launch ASF’s North Carolina chapter back in 1994, received the 2017 Distinguished Alumni of the Year Award from Wake Forest University (WFU) on April 21. It was a well-deserved recognition for a man who was inspired by the life of Dr. Albert Schweitzer to become a doctor and make service a focal point of his career.

Jones frequently describes himself as just a simple country doctor, but that is such an understatement. It’s difficult to choose a starting point when describing Jones’s life and the professional accomplishments that led WFU to honor him. Does one begin with his status as the first Native American to graduate from WFU? Or his founding role in East Carolina University’s (ECU) Brody School of Medicine in 1974? Perhaps with his term as President of the American Academy of Family Physicians in the late 1980s, a platform he used to raise awareness nationally of the need to train more doctors for careers in rural medicine? Or with his tenure as the first executive director of the North Carolina Health Planning Commission in the 1990s, when he warned of a coming crisis in health care access and affordability?

Jones says he’s most proud of his role in the founding of the Brody School of Medicine. ECU’s push for a medical school came as Jones practiced general medicine in the small city of Jacksonville and was active in the North Carolina Academy of Family Physicians (NCAFP), becoming the organization’s president in 1973. Concerned about the growing shortage of family doctors, especially in the state’ rural areas, Jones used his platform as NCAFP president to successfully advocate for the creation of a medical school that specialized in training general practitioners. Jones then developed Brody’s Family Medicine Program, becoming chair of the department in 1976.

“I’m proud of the work I did to establish a medical school that has as its primary mission to provide medical education for minority students and others who are economically and geographically disadvantaged, and also to train doctors to practice in rural areas,” says Jones.

He also takes great pride in the national political work he did while leading organizations like American Academy of Family Physicians and its philanthropic foundation. Jones oversaw the foundation’s partnership with pharmaceutical companies to provide medical assistance to the former Soviet bloc, traveling to the region on two occasions to deliver several million dollars’ worth of medicine and supplies.

Jones’s enduring commitment to caring for the underserved, be it in rural North Carolina or in far away former Soviet states, was greatly influenced by the example of Dr. Schweitzer. As a 12-year-old growing up in the farming community of Pembroke, N.C., Jones encountered a missionary at the Baptist church his family attended, who told him about Schweitzer’s medical missionary work in Africa. Intrigued, Jones began to read on his own about “this great humanitarian missionary.”

“He became my inspiration and led me on a path of what I hope has been public service to the good,” says Jones.

Though he aspired quite literally to follow in Schweitzer’s footsteps by becoming a medical missionary in Africa, Jones ultimately came to understand that his call to service was closer to home. A member of the Lumbee Indian tribe, Jones transferred to WFU from a junior college, becoming the first Native American to graduate from the university in 1955. He then enrolled in WFU’s med school. Jones served two years as a medical officer in the Navy, then opened in general practice in Jacksonville in 1962, committing himself to improving the health of rural North Carolinians.

In addition to Schweitzer’s example and his religious faith, Jones says his commitment to the underserved was also driven by his experience as a Native American in segregated North Carolina in the 1940s and ’50s, when Native Americans were, like African Americans, prohibited from accessing public accommodations and institutions alongside white people.

“It was a time that made me aware of injustices and that I ought to do what I could to address things that were not right morally and ethically,” Jones says. “It made me appreciate the opportunity to take advantage of privileges offered to me, and I hope that I’ve done that.”

Jones’ commitment to service, his admiration for Dr. Schweitzer, and serendipity led him to help found ASF’s North Carolina chapter in 1994. The roots of his involvement go back to his days as WFU undergrad, when Jones forged a close friendship with his philosophy professor A.C. Reid. Four decades later, Reid’s grandson read with great interest an article in Wake Forest Magazine in which Jones both praised Reid as his all-time favorite professor and expressed interest in the Schweitzer Fellowship, which he had learned about through Trisha White, a Harvard medical student and North Carolinian who had served as a Lambaréné Fellow.

And just who was Reid’s grandson? As it turns out, none other than Dr. Lachlan Forrow, who was then ASF’s president (he is now President Emeritus). Forrow contacted Jones to ask if he’d be willing to work with Trisha to launch the North Carolina chapter. Jones didn’t need much convincing to get involved.

“Trisha was inspiring and I wanted to help her accomplish her dream of starting a chapter here, which has really been incredibly successful,” says Jones. “My understanding is now they’ve awarded over 500 Fellowships here in the state to young people who have similar callings as Dr. Schweitzer, not necessarily to be missionaries but to do public service.”

Despite his long, distinguished career and recent accolades, Jones, who is 83, is not resting on his laurels. He remains outspoken on health-related political issues, including the idea that health care should be a right of American citizenship rather than a privilege for those who can afford to pay for it, and is critical of the current administration’s desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act instead of trying to make it work better.

“It just hurts me that they want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and now we don’t have anything except what’s already in place, and it needs some revamping badly,” Jones says.

He also continues to live out his commitment to service, now as Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a branch that originally began as a college to educate the Lumbee Indians in Robeson County—and in the very town where he first dreamt of following in Dr. Schweitzer’s footsteps.

“I’ve had a wonderfully blessed life,” says Jones. “I know that’s an overused word, but I truly do feel I ended up blessed.”