When physician and CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta spurned President Obama's offer to become U.S. surgeon general, the White House resumed its search for qualified candidates to fill a role Obama called "America's leading spokesperson on issues of public health." On July 13, the President finally tapped Alabama physician Regina Benjamin for the post, calling his nominee "a relentless promoter of prevention and wellness programs" who "represents what's best about health care in America." A look at her accomplishments and accolades:
Born in 1956 in Mobile, Ala., Benjamin was raised by her divorced mother in the nearby town of Daphne. While she was still young, her family came upon hard times and had to sell the land they owned. In order to feed themselves, they would make frequent trips to the Gulf of Mexico to catch crabs, fish and shrimp.
When she began applying to college, Benjamin naively submitted an application to Yale University Law School. "They sent me a reply politely telling me that I needed my undergraduate degree first," she recalled. Instead she enrolled at Xavier University in New Orleans on a scholarship. She went on to attend medical school at both the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Atlanta's Morehouse School of Medicine. She also holds an MBA from Tulane University.
Gained national notoriety after founding, in 1990, the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in the small shrimping village of Bayou La Batre, Ala. Benjamin said the idea for the clinic came after she spent three years working as a doctor in under-served areas for the National Health Services Corps.
She is the only doctor in Bayou La Batre, a town where about 80% of the population lives below the poverty line. As a consequence, she often treats patients for free or asks them to pay when they can. In 1994, Benjamin was named one of TIME's 50 most promising leaders aged 40 and under.
In 1995, she became the first black woman elected to the American Medical Association's Board of Trustees. In 2002, she became the president of the Alabama Medical Association, making her the first African-American woman to be president of a state medical society in the U.S.
Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters severely damaged Benjamin's clinic in 2005. Just before it was scheduled to reopen in 2006, the clinic was destroyed by fire. Despite the setbacks, she continued to treat patients at their homes and in area hospitals.
Last year Benjamin was one of 25 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation's "Genius" grant, which rewards people who have demonstrated "extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits" and provides to each fellow $100,000 a year for five years to use as they see fit.
"When you're face-to-face with a patient, you can't worry about the fact that they can't pay."
As quoted in a full-page ad in the Journal of the American Medical Association as part of the organization's campaign to get doctors to provide 50 hours of charity care each year (Chicago Tribune, February 28, 1992).
"It feels good when you help someone, when you make them smile, when you make a difference in their lives, when you stop the hurt. And you sleep well at night. To me, that's the best reward. If I had to go purchase that through a mail-order catalogue or something, that's what I'd buy."
During an interview touting her selection as a "Person of the Week" by ABC News (ABC World News with Peter Jennings, June 2, 1995).
"My family is not here with me today, at least not in person, because of preventable diseases. While I can't change my family's past, I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation's health care and our nation's health for the future."
Speaking about losing her father, mother and only sibling to illnesses (White House transcript, July 13, 2009).
"We didn't have anyone before her. We were just a bunch of shrimp pickers that no one cared about."
Bill Menton, a retired state senator who remained under Dr. Benjamin's care despite being financially able to travel anywhere for treatment (New York Times, April 3, 1995).
"I think it's wonderful, after Katrina destroyed so many people's homes and their lives, this lady went around helping people at their homes and making house calls."
Alice Gallops, a patient of Benjamin's (Associated Press, July 13, 2009).
"When people couldn't pay, she didn't charge them. When the clinic wasn't making money, she didn't take a salary for herself. When Hurricane George destroyed the clinic in 1998, she made house calls to all her patients while it was rebuilt. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed it again and left most of her town homeless, she mortgaged her house and maxed out her credit cards to rebuild that clinic for a second time."
President Obama describing Benjamin's dedication to her community (White House transcript, July 13, 2009).