First Black on AMA Board Makes His Mark : Dr. Lonnie Bristow Sees Trustee's Role as an Opportunity to Improve the Lot of Minorities

In 1969, Dr. Lonnie Bristow managed the campaign of three Richmond, Calif., pro-busing candidates for the school board.

Later the physician criticized screening programs for sickle-cell anemia, saying they did not provide appropriate counseling.

He also raised funds for a California Assembly candidate fighting an incumbent who was unfriendly to organized medicine.

However, the San Pablo, Calif., internist ended 15 years of political activism last June, when the 259,000-member American Medical Assn. chose him as its first black trustee.

Bristow, 55, who enjoys his medical specialty in job-related injuries and illnesses, will pursue another love--the study of medical systems--as the board of trustees meets half a dozen times annually during his three-year term.

Ultimate Authority

The 19-person board conducts AMA business between twice-yearly sessions of the 371-member House of Delegates, which has ultimate authority for rules and policy.

Seated in the living room of his large, modern home in the Berkeley Hills, Bristow said that because he is a trustee, "anything I do now has the potential for being interpreted as an action or a policy of the American Medical Assn."

Working in other rooms as he spoke were his wife, Lynne; daughter, Elizabeth, 17, and son, Robert, 20, quarterback on the Pomona College football team.

Bristow said that because of his responsibility to the AMA, he chooses "not to make my work confusing by becoming involved in something (political)" that may be interpreted as AMA policy.

"There are going to be times when I'm going to have strong personal feelings about things as I always have," Bristow said. "What I'll do is make my contribution monetarily to a cause . . . but I won't do something such as take the point position or be the campaign chairman or the finance chairman as I have in the past."

Nevertheless, he said, " . . . there are tremendous opportunities, if I do my job well, for improving the lot of all minorities. And in particular for blacks. And I plan to do exactly that."

Bristow said he could help minorities by supporting medical improvements that benefit the American public as a whole. He said his election could also show youngsters " . . . that they should reach for the best that's in them" and could demonstrate to all that "competence is not determined by skin color."

Bristow's interest in minority causes and improved medical systems have coexisted since he began studying medical systems 15 years ago.

Study Visits

Seven years later the American Society of Internal Medicine sent him to study the British national health service. He also investigated systems while on visits to Canada and China.

These interests leave him little spare time. "I do have spare time from my practice," he said, "but it's involved in this other work, which to me is not work. It's fun.

" . . . I don't know beans about how to fix my car, but I can understand how a mechanic could be really wrapped up in understanding what makes the car tick. That's how I feel about health-care systems."

"And each time (you study a system)," he said, "you try to understand how the nuts and bolts work. What works best and why?"

The burly, 6-foot-2 Bristow, who was raised in Harlem, became interested in medicine by watching his mother, a nurse, work in emergency rooms. His father is a Baptist minister.

His parents had little money but provided him with a room while he attended City College of New York and New York University medical school.

He took three years of an intership and residency in San Francisco, the final year in New York and returned to the Bay Area permanently. He designed his current home in Berkeley 15 years ago.

Bristow sometimes escapes from the house, built around an enclosed patio, to a three-bedroom beach cottage an hour and a quarter away in Marin County.

Fly to Los Angeles

Several times last fall he and his wife, who works in his office, flew to Los Angeles to watch their son play football for Pomona College on Saturday and the Los Angeles Raiders play on Sunday.

But he has spent much of his time working in AMA county, state and national organizations as well as the American Society of Internal Medicine. He served in the AMA's House of Delegates from 1980 to 1985 and as ASIM president from 1981 to '82.

He ran for the board of trustees in 1984, losing by only eight votes, and then ran again this year.

Blacks were prohibited from joining some state AMA organizations until several decades ago, Bristow said, and could not be elected to the board of trustees until they demonstrated their abilities and "percolated upward."

" . . . I think as time passes there'll be more examples of minorities at the leadership level (in the AMA)," he said. "Knock wood."

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