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Alumni Profile: Good Trouble

Posted by on Wednesday, March 27, 2024 in Alumni News, Alumni Profile, Spring 2024, Vanderbilt Community .

Photo by Donn Jones

When John Sergent was 5 years old, he developed measles pneumonia. The physician in his West Virginia hometown made house calls and not only influenced Sergent’s recovery, but he made a lasting impression on him that led to his choosing medicine as a profession.

“How comforting it was to hear his voice at the door. From a very young age, I always said I wanted to be a doctor,” Sergent said.

Two years later, Sergent’s family moved from West Virginia to Kentucky. During his junior year in high school, he realized that “separate but equal” was a flawed concept when his high school desegregated.

“We went from all white to maybe 10-15% Black. When we desegrated at Frankfort High School, I can tell you, it was anything but ‘separate but equal.’ I saw that the Black students had never seen a science lab or a library staffed by a very helpful librarian, and none of the Black students had taken math beyond a little algebra,” he recalled.

Sergent arrived as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University in 1959 and witnessed the early efforts of activist and Vanderbilt University Divinity School student James Lawson to organize nonviolent, sit-in protests of Nashville’s segregation policies.

“It gnawed away at me that I saw this going on and didn’t do anything about it,” he said.

That changed during the fall of 1961 when Sergent was elected to the VU student Senate and proposed a bill that would recommend to the board of trust to desegregate all the university’s schools, including the medical school. The

bill failed by one vote. He then proposed that there be a referendum and a debate open to the student body. The referendum failed to pass by 200 votes. However, two months later, the board of trust voted to desegregate the entire university.

After earning his medical degree in 1966, Sergent spent two years at Johns Hopkins, two years at the National Institutes of Health, and returned to Vanderbilt to finish his residency. He went to Cornell for his rheumatology fellowship and returned to Vanderbilt in 1975 as its first chief of the Division of Rheumatology.

Sergent has had a long career at Vanderbilt including serving as its first chief medical officer and as the internal medicine residency program director for 10 years. In the last two years he has cut back his schedule but continues to see patients and work with students and residents.

When his wife, Carole, asks when he is going to retire, he replies, “I’ll do that when I find an activity I enjoy more than what I am now doing.”

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