Defying Definition, Embracing the Liberal Arts
Issue   |   Fri, 10/23/2015 - 14:59
Kimberly Owen
Simpkins' current project focuses on Vivacelle Bio Inc., a company created to produce and distribute his new resuscitation fluid.

Cuthbert Simpkins ’69 is the ultimate Renaissance man. Throughout his distinguished career as a physician, he’s been a bitter opponent of medical malpractice. But he’s also the biographer of the jazz musician John Coltrane and an inventor to boot. With all these remarkable accomplishments, Simpkins’ career defies labels.

Growing Up

“There were two circles of influence,” Simpkins said. “One was my family. The other was everything outside of my family.”

Born in 1947, Simpkins grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. His father, a dentist, and his mother both encouraged the young Simpkins to pursue a rigorous academic pace, but for Simpkins to learn and excel seemed ridiculous to the segregated society in which he lived. At age 8, Simpkins attempted to enter a science fair for young people in Shreveport, but the administrators of the fair informed him that it was closed to black children.

Simpkins remembered being confused and frustrated by obstacles such as these. “I was angry as a young man,” he said. Despite this opposition, Simpkins learned through reading his father’s college science books and speaking with professors that his father invited to the house from Wiley College, the elder Simpkins’ alma mater.

“We were always ready to defend ourselves,” Simpkins said. His entire family knew how to shoot, and Simpkins kept a gun under his bed. In one episode, another boy ran Simpkins home from school one day. The next day, when the boy ran him home again, Simpkins’ mother locked the door and said, “You better fight.”

Simpkins and the family fought. They fought through the civil rights movement, in which he remembers his parents actively participating. In the midst of this political turmoil, his parents also maintained a vibrant intellectual environment at home. Simpkins’ mother taught her children about the arts, while his father encouraged scientific pursuits and shared his love of jazz with his young son.

However, the racial violence eventually forced the family out of Shreveport.

“In my first semester of ninth grade, our house was bombed,” Simpkins said. “Actions, terrorist actions, were taken against my father and the black community because we had won some civil rights battles.” Simpkins and his family eventually settled in Queens, New York, where Cuthbert attended Andrew Jackson High School.

Amherst, Medical School and Coltrane

Growing up in Shreveport, Simpkins had never heard of Amherst College. But Simpkins’ high school guidance counselor Nelson Black was enamored with the college. After speaking with a black student studying at Amherst, Simpkins was sold and applied to the school early decision.

“I wanted to go to Amherst because of its emphasis on developing the individual,” Simpkins said. Despite choosing a career in medicine at Amherst, Simpkins did not forget the love of jazz that his father had instilled in him. While an undergrad, he began a biography of John Coltrane, the legendary 20th-century jazz musician. Simpkins continued working on the biography despite writing a chemistry thesis his senior year and attending medical school at Harvard University after graduating from Amherst.

When Simpkins finished the biography, his publisher changed Simpkins’ language in order to “make it more acceptable to white folks.” Simpkins, however, wanted “the book to be Coltrane, as much as a book can be a man.” He left the publisher, restored the manuscript to its original language and, with the help of various friends, created his own publishing company to distribute the book.

Upon finishing the book, Simpkins said, “I was happy to finish it, since the book both represented a great success and also meant I had more free time.” “Coltrane: A Biography” was published in 1975 to enormously positive reception from media critics.

Mel Watkins wrote in The New York Times Saturday book review, “Dr. Simpkins very often accomplishes something that few other jazz biographers have done: He narratively simulates the emotional effect of the subject’s music.” The New York Amsterdam News raved, “This book reveals Dr. Simpkins as a literary talent worthy of attention,” while a reviewer Essence Magazine wrote, “Coltrane? What do I say? One helluva book.”

In the June 3, 2014 edition of the Paris Review, nearly 40 years after the biography’s publication, acclaimed biographer Sam Stephenson wrote a glowing review of Simpkins’ work. “The review was wonderful,” Simpkins said. “And since the book was out of print, one copy sold for $7,000 afterwards.”

Medical Career

Simpkins graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1975 and completed his surgical training at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York and Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. Simpkins’ medical career took him around the country. He did research fellowships at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. While in the Navy, Simpkins reached the rank of Commander, but he left in 1987 because, “while he was prepared to do his duty as a member of the military, he disagreed with the policies of the president at the time.”

In 1987, Simpkins joined D.C. General Hospital in Washington, D.C., which generally treated the poorer residents from the area, and Simpkins said, “Over the course of two or three years, I noticed that I was operating on the same [people] over and over again.” He discovered, in researching the problem, that 40 percent of patients who were admitted to the hospital due to violence had been in the hospital at least once before.

While at D.C. General, Simpkins was also an outspoken critic of doctors who he believed acted in the interest of the hospital or of themselves while treating people, rather than in the interest of the patient. The administration at D.C. General retaliated to Simpkins’ accusations by sending false information to the National Practitioner Data Bank, a government entity that collects information on medical malpractice. Simpkins challenged the falsified review, suing the databank and successfully removing his name from the list. To this day, he remains one of the few to have done so.

In 1991, Simpkins left D.C. General to join the trauma center at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, but continued to conduct research on patient recidivism. In 1993, he proposed and eventually implemented a Violence Intervention Program at the University of Maryland. In the program, the hospital worked with social workers to prevent patients at risk of recidivism from returning to the hospital for reasons due to violence. The program continues at the University of Maryland to this day.

Simpkins left Maryland in 1994 to work at the University of Buffalo. At Buffalo, Simpkins noticed during his assessments and conversations with patients that many had been pepper sprayed by the police in the nose and eyes. His research and criticism of the practice, picked up by the media, led the United States Department of Justice to investigate the Buffalo police department, and complaints about the misuse of pepper spray stopped soon after.

Return Home

Simpkins worked at Buffalo until 2000, at which point he spent a few years at Texas Tech University’s trauma center. Despite his travels, Simpkins claimed, he always wished to return home to Louisiana. So, in 2004, Simpkins left Texas Tech to work at Louisiana State University Health Sciences in Shreveport as the chief of trauma and surgical care. However, Simpkins was appalled at the medical malpractice that occurred at LSU.

Certain doctors and nurses, he claimed, routinely mistreated patients. “It wasn’t a racism thing, either,” Simpkins said. “Black or white, they mistreated everyone.” He recalled one incident in which a pregnant 17-year-old girl checked into the hospital. The doctors addressed most of her injuries, but since they disapproved of Simpkins, they did not call in the trauma team. By the time the girl went into shock, it was too late to do anything, and both the girl and her unborn baby died.

All the same, Simpkins found a group of residents, nurses and doctors at LSU with whom he bonded and mentored. As chief of the trauma department, Simpkins restored LSU’s status as a level one adult trauma care center and also led it to attain level one status in pediatric trauma, a distinction LSU had never held.

However, Simpkins’ relationship with some of his colleagues and the hospital’s administration never improved. In 2008, he was once again the victim of malicious peer review, and in 2009, LSU refused to renew Simpkins’ five-year contract without explanation.

Simpkins the Inventor

Throughout his career, Simpkins has also made various contributions to research on shock and trauma. As a trauma surgeon, he “had many patients whose injuries [he] could fix but who died because of shock,” he said. He surmised that the existing resuscitation fluids could be improved, and, in 1998, began research on a new fluid. By 2007, Simpkins had developed a new soybean-based resuscitation fluid, which saw positive results in animal tests.

After leaving LSU, he founded the biotech company Vivacelle Bio, Inc. in order to facilitate the production and distribution of his new resuscitation fluid. Simpkins has been awarded multiple patents for his discovery, both in the United States and abroad.

To Simpkins’ list of achievements, he has added doctor, surgeon, soldier and inventor. In the future, he will try to add entrepreneur to that list.