Dr. Granville Coggs

Gold Rush

by Janice O‘Leary

YouTube Preview Image Well past retirement age, radiologist Granville Coggs goes for the gold. On his home answering machine, Granville Coggs ’53 identifies himself first as a runner, then as a radiologist because, he says, “People are more impressed by my running.”At age 81, Coggs swims and sprints daily as part of his training for the 2006 Texas State Senior Games. Last year, he won the gold in the 400- and 1500-meter events in his age bracket.

“I park 400 meters from the main entrance to my office,” Coggs says. “And I run that distance on my way into the building and on my way out. Today my time was 2:57. Yesterday it was 3:07.”

Coggs began running competitively in his 70s, when he commuted 67 miles to work each day and found himself falling asleep at the wheel, which led to a diagnosis of narcolepsy. “I’d have to pull over for a nap,” he says. “But my wife, Maud, who was a track star in her youth, suggested that if I were fitter maybe a nap wouldn’t be necessary.”

Maud’s prescription worked. “She coached me,” Coggs says. “We’d get up at three in the morning to run a mile in our neighborhood. That was in 1994. Within two years I could run a mile in under eight minutes, so a friend suggested I train for the National Senior Games.”

Dr Granville Coggs RunningIn 1999, after placing 18th out of 18 in the 1500 meter at the national competition, Coggs reconsidered running that event. “I like gold medals,” he says, “and I want to keep winning them.” He concentrated instead on the 400 meter at the nationals and continues to run both events at state senior races, where gold medals are slipped around his neck year after year. This fall he’ll run in the Texas State Senior Games again, and his confidence remains high. “I think I’ll win at least one gold,” he says. He pauses, then adds, “I’m not known for my modesty.”

Coggs attributes his success on the track and his swift ascent in the field of radiology to lessons he learned from his parents—a father, the son of slaves, who started a boys’ reformatory and orphanage and later became president of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, and a mother who supported her children’s education. “They expected me to do my best daily,” he says. “It’s what I still expect of myself.”

While growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Coggs accepted the rules of segregation but never let them curb his ambitions. “In our family if you thought you could do something, you were encouraged,” he says.

But the climate outside his parents’ home could be harsh. “One day my second oldest brother was driving us to elementary school,” he recalls, “and along the way we passed a truck driven by a white man. When we stopped at the school, the truck also pulled into the lot. The driver got out and knocked my brother down. He said, ‘Don’t you ever pass a white man on the road again.’ ”

And though Coggs didn’t struggle against what he couldn’t change, he held steady to the track his parents and teachers opened for him. At his segregated elementary and high schools, his teachers urged him and his classmates to pursue their dreams at the same time they stressed the social limitations. “They told us we’d have to perform better than the rest of the world just to reap the same benefits,” he says. “This is still true.”

Built for Speed

After high school, Coggs knew he wanted to fly. So, during World War II, he volunteered with the all-black combat unit of the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a Tuskegee Airman. He trained as an aerial gunner and in 1944 was commissioned as a bombardier, flying the B-25 Mitchell bomber. He fondly remembers the noisy but reliable drone of that twin engine and the challenge of learning to operate such a complex and potentially lethal machine. But he finished training too late to enter the war.

While training, he met his future wife and hatched the idea to follow one of his older brothers to medical school and become a flight surgeon. “Maud asked me how I was going to take care of her,” Coggs says. “I needed to impress her, so I said I’d go to medical school. My plan worked, because she became my wife.”

The GI Bill helped make that future a reality. “Without that support I wouldn’t have considered Harvard,” he says. “The tuition then was $830 per year. The government paid $500, and HMS awarded me a scholarship for the rest.”

If his initial experience with Harvard Medical School was one of generosity of pocket, his next was generosity of spirit. “I feel a special loyalty to HMS,” Coggs says, “because it was the first place I was treated as a person, rather than as a black person. My first year I lived in a mixed dormitory. That integration would have been unthinkable in Arkansas or Nebraska.”

Coggs mulled the issue of discrimination before coming north. He had known a doctor back home, George William Stanley Ish, who graduated from HMS in 1909. “When I was applying, University of Southern California officials said I’d be the first black person ever to attend their school,” he says. “Though I like sunny weather, I thought, why go there, when Harvard has been graduating black doctors since at least 1909?” He later learned HMS has been graduating students of African descent since 1869 or even earlier.

After medical school Coggs rose quickly in the world of radiology. He worked with some of the first ultrasound machines while at Kaiser Foundation Hospital and the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) in the 1960s and 1970s. While he was working as a full-time faculty member at UCSF, the Picker Corporation gave him a cardiac ultrasound machine. After his success in diagnosing mitral stenosis with it, the company gave Coggs one of its first abdominal ultrasound machines. “The images were so crude compared with the definitive pictures we have today,” he says. “We were lucky if we could tell whether a baby was breech or vertex.” He established the ultrasound division at UCSF in 1972.

Since then Coggs has invented two biopsy devices. He presented his latest—a low-cost, precision probe for percutaneous breast biopsies—to his peers in 1993. He believes it could be an asset for physicians working in developing countries. “I had hoped some company would want to market it,” Coggs said. “There’s a need for this sort of tool in the field.”

Built for Distance

Coggs still contributes to social security rather than drawing from it. At more than 15 years past the average retirement age, he works six days a week as a radiologist. Weekdays, he reads chest films and screening mammograms at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and on Saturdays he reviews screening mammograms at a private clinic. Last year he read more than 6,500 breast scans.

“Early detection can truly save lives,” he says. “That’s the attraction for me. I know I’m saving women’s lives, and I know what I’m doing takes a skill not every radiologist has.”

Coggs, nicknamed “Granny” at HMS but now called “Dude” by his granddaughters, plans to retire when he’s 90. “I’m an optimist,” he says, “and I’m a government employee. I’d have to do something really drastic for them to fire me.”

When Coggs reflects on the circumstances that allowed him to push through social limitations, he thinks of his father and the values he instilled. “As an educator he touched so many lives,” he says. “People would come up to him many years later to thank him. As a radiologist, I know I’m touching people’s lives, but it’s anonymous. I’m proud of what I do, but I could never fill my father’s shoes.”

Perhaps he’ll fill even bigger shoes—in 2001 Coggs was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame—and he may have the time in which to do it. Coggs’s father lived to age 105. “My father might have lived even longer,” Coggs says, “if he had been an aerobic activity advocate like me. I feel confident about living to be 100 on genes alone. With my running and swimming, I should live to 110.”

Plenty of time for more gold medals.

Janice O’Leary was the assistant editor of the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin from 2004 to 2007.

Photos: Courtesy of Granville Coggs