James Hildreth, MD, PhD, felt like his life came full circle in 2019 when he became the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
“The St. Jude story is one of the most compelling in all of medicine and research,” Hildreth said. “Its mission, to eliminate deadly diseases that impact children without regard to their families’ ability to pay, closely aligns with my own personal story and that of the institution I lead, Meharry Medical College.”
Hildreth lost his father to renal cancer when he was a child in south-central Arkansas. During his illness, Hildreth’s father was never admitted to a hospital, and received only occasional visits from “country doctors.”
“I was 11 at the time,” Hildreth said, “confused and angry that my father did not get much medical attention—from my perspective because of his skin color. And four months later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.”
Hildreth was literally muted by his own anger, refusing to speak to anyone for a time. He was still capable of listening and followed his mother’s advice to channel his emotions into something productive.
“Your circumstances do not limit your possibilities,” his mother said to him.
“This personal experience with health care inequity was the primary motivation for me to pursue medicine as a career,” Hildreth said. He was valedictorian of his high school in Camden, Arkansas, and continued his studies in chemistry at Harvard University, completing his doctorate in immunology at Oxford University. He joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine a few weeks after completing his medical degree.
“I cannot overemphasize what an impact he has made in many areas of science, medicine and human rights,” said Stephen White, DPhil, president and dean of the St. Jude Graduate School, and a fellow Oxford alumnus.
Hildreth remained at Johns Hopkins for 18 years, becoming a full professor while serving with the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities. In 2001, Hildreth’s NIH team discovered how cholesterol enables HIV to penetrate human cells. This breakthrough led to topical microbicides that can block transmission of the virus, which causes AIDS.
“Dr. Hildreth is an incredible asset to our graduate program,” said third-year PhD student Christina Daly. “It’s exciting to discuss our research projects with him, because he is truly invested in our progress and our futures in science.” Daly said her confidence in Hildreth’s leadership is rooted in his compassion and his understanding of the diversity of patient needs in America.
In 2005, Hildreth joined Meharry Medical College in Nashville, where he became director of the NIH-funded Center for AIDS Health Disparities Research. In 2011, Hildreth became dean of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of California-Davis.
Two seemingly unrelated events in 2015 brought St. Jude and Hildreth together: Hildreth returned to Meharry to become the 12th president and CEO of the historically Black college and St. Jude received approval to open a graduate school. When Hildreth was approached about joining the Graduate School’s Board of Trustees two years later, it simply made sense.
“I was honored to be a part of establishing this new institution,” Hildreth said. “The environment for training future biomedical scientists is unrivaled at St. Jude, and the students who train there are exposed to exemplary translational research.”
Hildreth is quick to point out parallels in the foundational stories of Meharry and St. Jude.
“Danny Thomas was moved in part to establish St Jude after reading the story of a Black child, severely wounded by an automobile, who was refused emergency care because of race,” Hildreth said. “He vowed to create a hospital where no child would be refused care for that reason.”
Meharry Medical College’s creation was also inspired by a vehicular accident. On a rainy night in the 1820s, Sam Meharry, a white teenager, was driving a wagon through the backwoods of Tennessee when he slid off the road.
“He was taken in and assisted by a Black family,” Hildreth said. “Fifty years later, in 1876, to repay the act of kindness and grace by that family, Sam and his brothers made a gift to the Methodist Church to establish a medical department at Central Tennessee College so that Blacks could learn the medical arts to treat their sick and any other poor people who needed care.
“Like Danny Thomas, the Meharry family was deeply religious, and Meharry Medical College remains affiliated with the United Methodist Church,” Hildreth said. “Both institutions share a common mission: providing life-saving care and training opportunities regardless of race, economic status, or place of origin. So indeed, being part of the leadership of two institutions whose missions are to reduce or eliminate health disparities feels like life coming full circle.”
“One of the main reasons I chose a career in biomedical research, particularly at St Jude,” Daly said, “was because of my passion for equity in health care. I was moved by this institution's involvement in the fight for civil rights and health-care access.”
While the fruits of Hildreth’s HIV discoveries continue to contribute to lives around the world, he also helped to lead the COVID-19 response at home in Middle Tennessee and to help with the national pandemic outreach efforts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration fast-tracked his temporary appointment to the advisory committee that approved the emergency-use authorization of two COVID-19 vaccines.
“Considering the disproportionate burden of disease in communities of color, it is incumbent upon the FDA to convene a committee that includes experts on health issues of concern to minority populations,” wrote Prabhakara Atreya, the FDA official who recommended Hildreth’s appointment.
For his contributions to the region’s COVID-19 response, Hildreth was named “Person of the Year” by the Tennessee Tribune and “Newsmaker of the Year” by the Nashville Business Journal. The Tennessean dubbed Hildreth and Meharry Medical College as “the faces of Nashville’s pandemic response,” after reporting in November 2020 that the Biden-Harris transition team invited Hildreth to submit his resume for consideration for a role in the new administration. He was subsequently appointed by President Biden to the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.
“One of the most important efforts I feel like I will be a part of is the effort to ensure that communities of color accept and receive COVID-19 vaccines,” Hildreth said. “People in these communities bear a disproportionate burden of chronic diseases that predisposes them to severe COVID-19 and death from the disease. My contribution is to dispel myths and mistruths about vaccines generally and COVID-19 vaccines, in particular. I will continue in this effort for as long as it takes.”