At least 6,000 people owe a specific debt of thanks to Dr. Calvin H. Shirley of Fort Lauderdale, because he brought them into the world. But over the five decades that one of south Florida’s first African-American doctors practiced medicine, he earned the gratitude of countless other patients, many of didn’t have health insurance and didn’t have the money to pay for his services.
Dr. Shirley didn’t care. As part of his one-man war against poverty and racism, he was perfectly willing to accept vegetables from a patient’s garden in lieu of payment. “I could have gone on the other side of town,” he once explained. “But I’m a poor doctor, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
Dr. Shirley, who died June 23 at the age of 91, was a gynecologist/obstetrician by specialty, but he treated patients with all sorts of conditions, from sickle-cell anemia and asthma to lupus. And he was willing to make house calls, even in the middle of the night. At his memorial service, one elderly woman recalled how, one rainy night, he came to her house with a nurse to deliver her baby.
A Pensacola native whose father was a minister, Dr. Shirley graduated from Florida A&M University and served in the Pacific during World War II as a U.S. Navy medical corpsman before earning his medical degree from the Boston College of Physicians and Surgeons. In 1949 he returned to Florida, where he joined two other African American physicians on the staff of the black-owned-and-operated Provident Hospital. At the time, the 11-year-old hospital was the only facility in the county willing to treat patients regardless of their color.
In addition to treating patients, Dr. Shirley was a civil rights activist, according to this tribute in the Florida Courier. He was instrumental in getting the Broward County Health Department to open offices in African American neighborhoods and also campaigned for the integration of local beaches.
In March, Fort Lauderdale honored Dr. Shirley with a Citizen Recognition Award. Last week, he also was eulogized on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Alcee Hastings, who quoted Dr. Shirley’s own words: “A good doctor is one who is concerned with giving service, as opposed to one who’s only concerned with the almighty dollar.”