Dr. Donald Stewart, longtime Baltimore internist, dies

Dr. Stewart was one of the first African-Americans admitted to the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Dr. Donald W. Stewart, a retired internist who was one of the first African-Americans to be admitted to the University of Maryland School of Medicine, died of complications from Alzheimer's disease Oct. 16 at Towson Manor Care.

The longtime Ashburton, Cross Keys and Pikesville resident was 87.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Madison Avenue, he was the son of Clarence Stewart, an insurance salesman, and Naomi Stewart, a schoolteacher.

He was a 1947 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School and earned a bachelor's degree from what is now Morgan State University.

According to a University of Maryland School of Medicine 2004 alumni profile, Dr. Stewart wanted to become a dentist.

"My father's main philosophy for my sister, my brother, and me was 'Get an education! Get an education!' He drummed that into us so much,'" Dr. Stewart said in the profile. "I was impressed with a couple of local dentists who really seemed to be on the ball. All through high school and college, I was thinking about dentistry."

He applied to the University of Maryland dental school but was rejected because of his race.

"When he received a rejection letter suggesting that he could attend one of two black dental schools in other states, Stewart decided to challenge the decision," said the alumni profile.

"I knew I was being rejected because of my race," Dr. Stewart said in the article. "I was being graduated with highest honors from Morgan State, I didn't have a criminal record or any problem with my character.'"

At that time, a state of Maryland policy dictated that it was not required to admit African-American students to its medical or dental schools if it could find alternative schooling. The state would pay for out-of-state education rather than integrate its own schools.

But the 2004 article noted that Dr. Stewart wanted to attend a school near his home, and so he contacted a top attorney with the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall — who later became the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court.

After initiating a lawsuit, however, he enrolled in a human physiology course that was "so captivating that he lost interest in becoming a dentist," the article said.

"I was smitten by the way the human body works," he said in the article. "I thought, 'If I become a physician, I can deal with the whole body and not just the oral cavity.' It hit me like a revelation."

Dr. Stewart recalled that Justice Marshall encouraged him to apply to medical school. He did so, and according to the alumni profile, he soon received a reply that if he dropped the dental school lawsuit, he would be considered for admission to the medical school. He agreed, the article said.

"He was a true pioneer," said University of Maryland law professor Larry Gibson, who is the author of a Thurgood Marshall biography. "He was a plaintiff in one of those groundbreaking University of Maryland professional school cases. It took a series of lawsuits to open doors."

He was admitted in 1951 along with another African-American student, Roderick Charles, who also became a doctor.

Dr. Stewart recalled that as a medical student, he was once mistaken for a hospital orderly.

"Those people apologized and seemed to be truly sorry about the mistake," he said in the 2004 article. "It was an honest mistake, because they just weren't used to seeing black medical students."

He completed a residency in internal medicine at Sinai Hospital, where he had worked summers as a lab technician. He then served in the Air Force at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts. He returned to Sinai, then served another two years at the Veterans Administration Hospital at Fort Howard, where he was chief resident in medicine.

"He was well-balanced, even-tempered and soft-spoken," said Dr. Louis L. Randall, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist. "He had a sophisticated air about him. He was an amicable and friendly guy. I met him when I was in the third class of African-American students in the medical school in 1953."

"Donald was a pleasant young man. I would see him and sometimes we would have lunch together in the dining room," said Esther McCready, who was the first African-American to be admitted to the University of Maryland School of Nursing.

Dr. Stewart established a private practice and was an attending physician at Sinai, and also at the old Provident and Lutheran hospitals and at Liberty Medical Center. He practiced for many years at the Garwyn Medical Center in West Baltimore.

In 1993 he was named Liberty Medical Center's Physician of the Year. He was also named a Pioneer of the Monumental City Medical Society.

He retired in 2011 after working for Clinical Associates in Towson for a decade.

"He was a highly respected and beloved internist," said Dr. Gary Manko, president of Clinical Associates. "The physicians who worked with him felt honored to be with him."

"He was a dedicated physician, almost to a fault," said his wife, Olivia Cheeks Stewart. "His patients loved him, and he loved taking care of them. As a man, I admired him for what he did. I loved him for his wit and kindness. He was always a gentleman, with lots of wisdom to share."

She also said he had also a keen ear for proper grammar. And he loved homemade poundcake.

His wife said they delighted in entertaining their families. They played tennis together at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. They skied at their Deep Creek Lake home, and they traveled widely.

"His first sport was tennis and my first sport was downhill skiing. We delighted in teaching each other," said his wife.

Dr. Stewart served as a deacon at Providence Baptist Church, where he was also medical director of its adult day care center.

He donated his body to the Maryland Anatomy Board. He donated his brain to the Brain Resource Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Nov. 12 at Providence Baptist Church, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave.

In addition to his wife of 33 years, a retired Social Security Administration analyst who was also his office manager, survivors include two sons, Philip H. Stewart of Baltimore and Wayne Stewart of Owings Mills; a daughter, Karen P. Stewart of Ellicott City; a stepson, Gregory Cheeks of San Diego; two stepdaughters, Donise Cheeks of Pennsylvania and Gayle Watkins of Pikesville; a sister, Thelma Green of North Carolina; six grandchildren; seven stepgrandchildren; a great-grandson; and a stepgreat-grandson. His marriage to Shirley Douglass ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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