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A living legend of health equity in stroke and heart disease

By Queen Muse 

The name Edward S. Cooper adorns a bustling internal medicine practice at Penn Medicine in University City. The patients who come for a variety of routine medical care every day might not know the story behind the center’s namesake, but they should. Edward S. Cooper, MD, is an accomplished Black physician and living legend whose illustrious career was marked by numerous groundbreaking achievements in cardiology and health equity. Now an emeritus professor, Cooper served over 40 years as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and 25 years as a committed trustee at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Recently, at the age of 97, Cooper announced plans to step down from that role. His impact and his story continue to resonate with his former colleagues and new generations of physicians and physicians-to-be at Penn and across the medical field. 

A cardiologist with a sharpening sense of purpose 

A black and white photo of Edward S. Cooper in middle age, holding a model human heart

Born in Columbia, South Carolina, on December 11, 1926, Cooper's medical journey began with a profound sense of purpose instilled by his parents, Ada Sawyer Cooper and Henry Howard Cooper, Sr., DDS. His father and two brothers were all dentists, and Cooper aimed to follow in their footsteps, albeit on a slightly different path. After earning an AB from Lincoln University and an MD from Meharry Medical College, where he graduated with the highest honors, Cooper embarked on a career as a cardiologist. 

As the only Black intern in his class at Philadelphia General Hospital, then the city of Philadelphia’s public hospital, Cooper witnessed numerous severe stroke cases, many of which were among Black patients. This inspired him to want to make an impact in the area of heart disease and stroke. Midway through his internship, though, Cooper had a harrowing battle with pneumonia that, at one point, he thought he might not survive. 

“I almost died,” Cooper recalled in an interview with NBC. “I said, ‘Good lord if you get me through this, I promise you I’ll do something about this stroke problem or at least make people aware of it and try to prevent it.’” 

Cooper made good on his promise. He went on to co-found and co-direct the Stroke Research Center at Philadelphia General Hospital. In 1958, Cooper joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and began providing internal medicine services and educating patients on stroke prevention through his private practice at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. 

Decades driving discoveries in stroke disparities 

Over the next four decades, Cooper made seminal discoveries examining how racial differences affect stroke in Black individuals and other understudied populations in medicine. His work uncovered similar risk factors in stroke and coronary disease, such as high blood pressure and high lipid levels, bringing new attention to these common causes.  

Emphasizing the significance of these contributions, Kenneth Margulies, MD, a professor of Cardiovascular Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, said Cooper’s efforts to identify racial disparities in preventive factors for these diseases helped to mobilize both public health and individual provider responses to these challenges. And they inspired Margulies to make similar contributions to the field in his own career.  

Cooper made history in 1972 when he became the first Black tenured faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. It would not be the last of his landmark moments. In June 1992, after serving the American Heart Association for over 30 years, Cooper became its first Black president. He went on to serve as chair of the AHA’s Stroke Council and of the committee that produced the AHA's influential scientific statement: Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke in African-American and Other Racial Minorities

Cooper later published a book, Stroke in Blacks, with co-author P.B. Gorelick, which is regarded as one of the first comprehensive texts on the epidemiology, pathophysiology, diagnosis, and treatment of stroke in Black patients. Today, Scott E. Kasner, MD, the director of Penn’s Comprehensive Stroke Center, keeps a signed copy of Cooper’s book on his desk. He says the book and Cooper inspire his work daily. 

“He dedicated his career to studying the critical issues related to epidemiology, risk factors, and management of stroke in African-Americans, with a particular focus on disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of hypertension,” said Kasner. “I am currently leading an effort to improve the diversity of enrollment in stroke clinical trials.  So even though Ed and I didn’t collaborate directly, there is no doubt that his life’s work heavily influenced mine.” 

An inspiring figure connecting the past to the future  

Bernett Johnson Jr., MD, Edward S. Cooper, MD, and Arthur Rubenstein, MBBCh wih a portrait of Cooper painted by Johnson
The portrait of Cooper that today is on display at Penn’s Stemmler Hall was painted in 2004 by the late Bernett Johnson Jr. MD (at left) and unveiled with then dean of the Perelman School of Medicine, Arthur Rubenstein, MBBCh (at right).

Throughout his career, Cooper became a trusted physician and friend to Civil Rights icons, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the late performer and activist Harry Belafonte, fascinating details that his humility will allow him to share if asked. He has also used his influence to help his students, mentees, and fellow physicians reach their full potential for impact. 

“I am just in awe of his career accomplishments,” said Gerald DeVaughn, MD, clinical assistant professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Penn Medicine who cares for patients at HUP-Cedar. “On each occasion, he amazes me with his wisdom that is so humbly submitted.” While noting that he did not have the opportunity to work directly with Cooper in the clinic, DeVaughn said, “There have been career opportunities that have mysteriously opened up for me. He doesn't know that I know that he was the clandestine operative behind the curtain. I am not alone. He has been an advocate for the careers of many African-American physicians in the Delaware Valley and nationally. Many are grateful for his mentorship.” 

Cooper’s many titles and responsibilities sometimes made it difficult for him to spend as much time as he would have liked with his wife, Jean Marie Wilder, who was also a physician, and their four children. Cooper’s daughter, Lisa Cooper Hudgins, MD, however, says she understood her father’s work was important in more ways than one. 

“He was a great dad but a busy dad, so every moment on vacation was precious,” said Hudgins, who also attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. “As a Black man in medicine, he knew he had to prove himself. He was 100 percent devoted to his focus on stroke and hypertension. He truly felt this was his mission.” 

The American Heart Association in Philadelphia, recognizing Cooper’s impact on the field, bestows its highest honor in his name each year.  Margulies was the recipient in 2022, followed by another Penn Medicine cardiologist, Paul J. Mather, in 2023.  

Mather noted the impact and honor of Cooper’s influence. “The more you learn about this man, the more incredible you know he is. He's a national figure and hero to many,” Mather said. “The thing that strikes me the most is his elegance and kindness. You sit next to him, and you feel the power of his intellect and drive, but it's enveloped in kindness and gentle elegance that makes you just sit in awe of him.” 

Having witnessed and contributed to several decades of transformation in medicine, Cooper says the most important tool to ensuring his work toward health equity continues in the future is medical school recruitment. He noted what an AAMC report, Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine, uncovered: that more Black men were applying and matriculating to medical schools in 1978 than in 2014. Since then, increases in Black male enrollment in medical school has been minimal. In 2021, Black men accounted for only five percent of all physicians in the U.S. 

“We’ve been working on it for years, and in some ways, it still hasn’t changed,” Cooper said. “It’s to everybody’s advantage to get students interested in science early, start recruiting them as early as tenth grade, and create opportunities for more Black men to be in medicine.” 

Today, Penn Medicine has invested in programs including a partnership with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia to support more young Black men entering medical school, and a pipeline program to help expose college students to medical school and provide a pathway to admission was expanded in 2022 to include several historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). 

Cooper’s advice to those doctors in the making who are soon to carry the torch: “Work hard, study hard, and strive for excellence.” 

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