Regina Benjamin

October 26, 1956 -
By Arbora Johnson

Dr. Regina Benjamin is a family physician who served as the 18th US Surgeon General during the Obama Administration, and was the youngest person and first African American admitted to the American Medical Association’s Board of Trustees. She has spent her career championing a better healthcare system—one focused on prevention, equal access and wellness. She uses her voice to tackle important but often overlooked issues such as exercise and obesity prevention in poor and rural communities, suicide prevention, and breastfeeding. In addition, she also tackles issues like reproductive rights and access to abortion. Her number one priority has long been more affordable healthcare for all Americans.   

Regina Marcia Benjamin was born in Mobile, Alabama on October 26, 1956. She grew up in rural Alabama, where poverty was the norm. After her parents divorced, her mother worked as a waitress and a maid to support the family, and Benjamin has said she never saw an African American doctor growing up. She graduated from Fairhope High School, on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, then went to college in New Orleans at Xavier University, where she encountered African American professionals, including medical doctors. She graduated with a degree in Chemistry in 1979.  

After college, she first attended the newly opened Morehouse School of Medicine, where founder Louis Sullivan, a prominent African American health official and doctor, was her mentor. Transferring schools, Benjamin obtained her MD from the University of Alabama in 1984, at age 28. Her medical school was paid for in part with funding from the National Health Service Corps, a federal government program that paid medical school tuition in exchange for a commitment to work in an underserved area.  

After completing her residency in family medicine, Benjamin returned to rural Alabama and founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in 1990, which to this day provides quality health care to anyone, charging only what patients can afford to pay. Benjamin was the only doctor in Bayou La Batre (the town) and the clinic was the only option for the majority of the area’s residents to access basic primary medical care.  By this point, Benjamin had found her calling: working as a primary care doctor while pushing to improve the U.S. healthcare system so that the focus became patients’ overall health rather than curing sickness once it emerged. She has spoken of her own family history as a driving factor for her advocacy: her brother died at age 44 of HIV-related illnesses, her father of hypertension, and her mother of lung cancer—all, Benjamin has said, “preventable deaths.” 

Benjamin has fought to keep the Bayou La Batre clinic running over the decades in the face of both ordinary and extraordinary obstacles. In the early days, she realized she needed business knowledge to keep the clinic open, and earned an MBA from Tulane University in 1991. She also transitioned the clinic to a nonprofit, soliciting both funds and donated services not related to her medical expertise, but necessary to keep the doors open, such as web design. Then challenges of a different kind hit: the clinic was severely damaged by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Katrina in 2005, then again by a fire in 2006—Benjamin rebuilt all three times.  In 2008, Benjamin received a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant.” She used the award’s money primarily in rebuilding the clinic. 

President Barack Obama tapped Benjamin as the U.S. Surgeon General in July 2009, and she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate later that fall. Benjamin accepted the post but was never shy about criticizing the healthcare system she headed, citing high costs and lack of accessibility. Her first paper as Surgeon General, published in early 2010, was "The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation,” which flagged the high levels of obesity among Americans, especially in low income communities, and detailed suggestions to address the problem. It generated some controversy when she specifically called on women of color to exercise more. Benjamin next issued an extremely detailed medical report on the benefits of breastfeeding and ways to encourage it called “The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding.” Her final major report as Surgeon General, in 2012, focused on suicide prevention; this was an update of a report issued by a previous Surgeon General ten years earlier and included 60 objectives for reducing suicide rates in the U.S.  

Benjamin left the position of Surgeon General in July 2013, and returned to the South. In addition to running the Bayou La Batre clinic, Benjamin is the Chair of Public Health Sciences at Xavier University of Louisiana. She also holds a number of nonprofit leadership and governmental advisory roles, including with Darkness to Light, a nonprofit focused on preventing child sexual abuse, and the National Kidney Foundation. She has won numerous awards, notably the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 1998 and the NAACP Chairman’s Award in 2011. She continues to fight to improve healthcare and make it available to all Americans. 


Published October 2021