Elijah Saunders (1934-2015)

A doctor and two nurses stand over two seated patients in a hospital room with a small television mounted in the corner of the room
Dr. Elijah Saunders and nursing coordinator Billie Wheeler assisting stroke patients, Provident Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland, November 15, 1976
Courtesy The Evening Sun

Dr. Elijah Saunders, M.D., was a cardiologist and expert on hypertension whose work addressed issues of race and ethnicity in healthcare.

Saunders was born in Maryland on December 9, 1934, the son of Lawrence and Lillie Saunders from Florence, South Carolina. He attended Baltimore City Public Schools and graduated from Morgan State University in 1956. In 1960 Saunders received his medical degree from the University of Maryland and completed his residency five years later, becoming the first African American cardiologist in the state.

Dr. Saunders was one of 18 founding members of the Association of Black Cardiologists, formed in 1974. In 1986 Saunders participated in creating the International Society of Hypertension in Blacks. He was a charter member of the American Society of Hypertension and a past president of the Maryland High Blood Pressure Coordinating Council.

The project “Ethnicity and Disease” was launched in 2003 as a direct result of his research on the origin and treatment of hypertension in people of color in Afro-Caribbean countries.

To make healthcare more accessible to African Americans, Dr. Saunders started the “The Barbershop Program” in 1978, training beauticians and barbers to take clients’ blood pressure and refer them for necessary treatment.

Through his medical practice, Dr. Saunders observed that African American patients’ responses to drug medications did not match his textbook training. He co-authored a book on the matter, “Contemporary Diagnosis and Management of Hypertension in African Americans,” which demonstrated the wide range in the efficacy of some blood pressure medications based on race, leading pharmaceutical companies to use more African American participants in clinical trials. In 2015 Dr. Saunders’ contributions to medicine were celebrated at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s graduation ceremony, where he was awarded the Dean’s Distinguished Gold Medal for his work.

Saunders received the American Heart Association Award of Merit in 1979, the Louis B. Russell Award in 1998, and the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Herbert W. Nickens Award in 2011 for promoting health equity in diagnosis and treatment. In 2020 he was posthumously recognized for his contributions as the inaugural recipient of the Greater Maryland Chapter of the American Heart Association Watkins-Saunders Award.

Saunders played violin in his spare time and co-founded the “University Players Orchestra,” comprising Baltimore medical professionals who played holiday music in the hospital lobbies of Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland Medical Center during Christmas.

He was married to Monzella Smith, with whom he had three children, and was a Christian and a founding member of the First United Church of Jesus Christ, now known as the Transformation Church of Jesus Christ in Maryland.

Dr. Elijah Saunders died on April 6, 2015, at age 80.

Multimedia relating to Elijah Saunders (1934-2015)