Skip to main content

The principle at the heart of the work of the Student Health Coalition (SHC) held that quality health care required the voice of the people. Students operationalized this principle by helping small rural communities to organize around access to health care.

Stepping into these communities was facilitated by the fact that most residents lived in a vacuum of services, a complete absence of accessible health care, neither private nor public. Children were not immunized. Diabetes, high blood pressure, pulmonary disease were left undiagnosed and untreated. The nearest hospital might be hours away. Roads were subject to impassible disrepair. Clinics were no where to be seen, nor were public health officials. The proposal that students and community leaders working together might change all that was radical and thrilling.

Health Fairs were at the heart of the organizing. The fairs took place in a school or community center. Student nurses and physicians conducted comprehensive free exams for anyone who showed up. Funds to support the fairs were recruited from foundations. The Tennessee Valley Association (TVA) loaned a van for the first few summers, outfitted with lab equipment and exam rooms. The exams included hematocrits, urine screens, stool culture for parasites, throat cultures, and a full physical exam. People with abnormal results got a home visit from one of the students, with assistance on followup. Most children were anemic, from poor nutrition or parasites or both. Most miners had lung disease. Many adults were found to have untreated heart disease or diabetes.

The Health Fair team moved to a new community at the end of each week. At the end of the summer, most students returned to school. A handful stayed behind, digging into long term work. The Health Fairs and the clinics that were the “fruits” of our labors uncovered dirty secrets about the adequacy of health in Appalachia and the rural south. SHC challenged and angered local health departments, physicians, county judges, and the like.

Nonetheless, many of those clinics still stand. And in some cases, they grew into networks of clinics serving whole regions with community owned and operated primary care clinics.



A sampling of vignettes that illustrate activities and aspirations of the SHC in striving to reinvent primary health Care in Appalachia and the rural South. (For a complete catalogue of oral and written narratives on the website, go to “Stories.”)

Dr. Daniel Gabriel’s legacy in St. Charles, VA

Posted 4 weeks ago

Ron Carson discusses Dr. Daniel Gabriel, MD and his local legacy in African American healthcare as the only doctor who in the 1940s and 50s would see black patients. Full footage of Ron Carson’s tour of the African American Cultural … Continued

Challenges facing nurse practitioners

Posted 4 weeks ago

Outside the old clinic building of what used to be Douglas Community Health Center, Margaret Ecker and Jean Carney discuss the multitude of challenges facing nurse practitioners and what legislative movement’s been made to overcome adversity of such restrictive practice. … Continued

Pushback against Douglass Community Health Center

Posted 4 weeks ago

Jean Carney shares how rhetoric against the black-run Douglas Community Health Center manifested as several false accusations and presented various legal challenges to both the clinic and associated nurse practitioners. Full footage of Jean Carney at the old clinic building. … Continued

Behind the scenes at Douglass Community Health Center

Posted 4 weeks ago

Jean Carney reminisces the early days of Douglas Community Health Center in Stanton, Tennessee. Following a brief overview of the clinic’s architectural layout and functional operations, she delves into the impact of race relations on healthcare at the time. Full … Continued

Bob Hartmann on the importance of defining health beyond the physical

Posted 2 months ago

Bob Hartmann explains how his and many others’ formative experience in rural healthcare and community medicine with the Center for Health Services, Student Health Coalition, and Mountain People’s Health Councils—both as students and young professionals—left a lasting impact on their … Continued

Bob Hartmann on community medicine in Stoney Fork, TN

Posted 2 months ago

Bob Hartmann shares an inside look at the culture and people of Stony Fork, Tennessee, a fascinating anecdote which captures the realities of rural healthcare and community medicine.  Full footage of Bob Hartmann’s interview with Rick Davidson.      

Bob Hartmann on Appalachian culture and rural healthcare

Posted 2 months ago

Bob Hartmann shares a story about one of his patients while working with Mountain People’s Health Councils in Norma, Tennessee. The narrative speaks to the influence of Appalachian culture on rural healthcare and community medicine. Full footage of Bob Hartmann’s … Continued



Profiles of several individuals, among many, whose work with the Student Health Coalition was centered on reinventing primary health Care in Appalachia and the rural South. (A listing of all SHC profiles can be found under “People.”)

  • Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)

    The Tennessee Valley Authority provided support to the Student Health Coalition early on, beginning in 1970.  A TVA van traveled to the Coalition health fairs and included x-ray, lab facilities, and staff to run it.  Retired TVA vans eventually served … Continued

  • Odes and Shelby McKamey

    Odes and Shelby McKamey were among the most cherished local hosts for members of the SHC when the health fair arrived in their remote mountain community of Stoney Fork, Tennessee. Later, after the Stony Fork Clinic was established, the McKameys … Continued

  • John Kennedy

    The summer before his final year at the Vanderbilt Law School and during the summer and fall after his graduation, John Kennedy worked for the Student Health Coalition, 1971 and 1972. He provided assistance to former miners who were seeking … Continued

  • J. Thomas “Tom” John, M.D.

    I am a bit late in getting my bio in, best done in the earlier stages of pending dotage. I am originally from Laurinburg NC a small farming and, then, textile community in the eastern part of the state. I … Continued

  • Dana Ellis: Personal reflections

    In this video clip, Dana Ellis reflects on her personal experiences as a student nurse working with community leaders in rural west Tennessee back in the early 1970s and how that work affected her career and her life.

  • Carolyn Burr Reflects

    Interview with Carolyn Burr, recorded at a 2013 Student Health Coalition reunion in Nashville, Tennessee. In this clip, Burr reflects on how the experience of working with the Coalition shaped her values and future career in nursing.

  • Lewis Lefkowitz

    [Contributed by Richard Davidson, October 2015] Lewis Lefkowitz was born in Dallas, Texas in December, 1930. He attended the University of Texas Southwestern medical school, did an internship at Duke University and finished his internal medicine residency at the VA … Continued

  • Byrd Duncan

    [Contributed by: John E. Davis] When the newly recruited medical workers and community workers of the Student Health Coalition gathered in Nashville in June 1970, beginning a week of orientation for the SHC’s second summer in Appalachia, they were introduced … Continued


A selection of initiatives, organizations, and developments that grew from seeds planted or causes championed by the SHC. (A complete catalogue of materials related to various outcomes of the SHC experience can be found under “Legacy.”)

Notes from the road: Mountain People’s Health Councils

Posted 3 years ago

Written by Caryl Carpenter On October 23rd, in 2017, a doctor, a lawyer, an archivist, and an old lady started out to make history, or more accurately, to record history – the history of Mountain People’s Health Councils (MPHC) in … Continued

Connecting the dots: from SHC to ACA

Posted 4 years ago

In 2013, just as the Affordable Care Act was about to get rolled out, Bill Corr took time out of his busy schedule as Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services to reflect on the resonance between the Coalition work of forty years ago and … Continued

1976 St. Charles Health Clinic, VA

Posted 5 years ago

After the 1975 health fair In St. Charles, Virginia, the local health council worked tirelessly to build a permanent clinic. By 1976, that clinic had opened to the public. And over time, it grew into a network of 12 regional … Continued