May 14, 2021
AUSTIN – About 70 years after he first had the inkling to become a physician, the Texas Medical Association (TMA) has honored 75-year-old William H. Fleming III, MD, with its Distinguished Service Award.
“I’m truly, truly, truly honored to receive this award,” said Dr. Fleming.
The Houston neurologist was a small child when he decided he wanted to be a doctor. He later considered music or being a fighter pilot, but medicine always drew him back.
“I love it, and my desire to help people is really where it came from,” he said. “I had excellent role models throughout my childhood: my pediatrician, my family doctor. It’s these guys who steered me along, and I emulated.”
Dr. Fleming said one of the most influential physicians might have been Harris Hauser, MD. Dr. Hauser visited during Dr. Fleming’s residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., urging him to move to Texas to practice. Instead, the young physician wanted to go to the East Coast or West Coast. “He said, ‘Come and take a look at Texas; we have a coast!’ ” said Dr. Fleming. Convinced, he moved to Houston, where he has practiced neurology for decades, and where he still sees patients.
Dr. Fleming is the first African American physician to receive TMA’s highest honor in the 59-year history of the association’s award, the significance of which he acknowledges. He credits predecessors who helped pave his way, like Frank Bryant Jr., MD, an African American doctor who provided primary care in San Antonio for decades.
“To look up to someone like a Dr. Bryant let me know this can happen, and happen in Texas. It can happen in the South,” he said. “It gave me the idea that I can do this too.”
When he started in organized medicine, few others looked like him. That has changed.
“We are a diverse society, and I think medicine should reflect our society,” said Dr. Fleming.
He also cites an influential incident during his childhood, when racial diversity and inclusion were not common. Someone in power broke the norms to invite him to an area reserved for white people. That person was his doctor. Those sorts of events, he says, “brought him along” and framed his outlook today, giving him a glimpse of what was possible, and solidifying his desire to help people.
After completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., Dr. Fleming enrolled in the St. Louis University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., to study to become a doctor.
“In my second year of medical school, during my neuroanatomy/neuroscience course, I became fascinated with the brain and how the brain functions,” he said. He set his course to specialize in neurology.
After a general medicine internship at Montreal General Hospital at McGill University in Montreal, he completed his neurology residency at the Mayo Clinic and Mayo Graduate School of Medicine.
He marvels at how much the field of neurology has improved patients’ outlooks since he began practicing.
“When I was in medical school, we had no medicines for multiple sclerosis. We now have 18. We had one medicine for Parkinson’s [disease]; God knows how many medicines we have now for Parkinson’s disease.”
Dr. Fleming recalls when George H. W. Bush was president, he designated the 1990s as the decade of the brain. “During his presidency is when … neuroscience took off,” he said.
Before then, “My friends would always ask me, ‘Why are you going into neurology? There's nothing you can do,’ ” said Dr. Fleming. He acknowledged medicine’s reach in brain care was limited, but physicians “still gave hope and you took care of people.”
“Now there are things we can do. Stroke survival is a 180-degree turnaround; there have been tremendous strides in in neurological care.”
After he was an established physician, a Christmas party conversation drew Dr. Fleming into organized medicine. “ ‘Dr. Fleming, we have a job for you,’ ” he recalls Betty Pearce Stephenson, MD, saying. She was a fellow Houston physician and TMA president in 1994-95.
He accepted the invitation from Dr. Stephenson – another of his mentors – joining a Harris County Medical Society committee. That started years of service and leadership in organized medicine with TMA; the county medical society; the American Medical Association (AMA); and other local, state, and national medical societies.
He served as TMA president in 2009-10, which he says he enjoyed particularly because of the people he met as he traveled representing the organization.
“For me to grow up and become president of what I feel is the best medical society in the country, maybe the world, is tremendous,” he said.
He helped lead TMA’s effort to improve federal health care reform as Congress debated and ultimately adopted the Affordable Care Act.
In addition to serving as TMA president, in 41 years as a TMA member Dr. Fleming has served on the board of trustees; as speaker and vice speaker to the House of Delegates; on the Council on Legislation; and as a Texas delegate to the AMA.
Participating in organized medicine brought the potential for leadership, and influence.
“You have the possibility of promoting change,” he said. “The best way to do that, I thought, was to be a role model, and live the life you would expect others to emulate.”
Dr. Fleming also has served on the Minority Affairs Consortium Advisory Board of AMA since 1999. He is on the Texas Medical Liability Trust Board of Directors and chaired the state affairs committee for the American Academy of Neurology. He also served as president of the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners, the Federation of State Medical Boards of the United States, the Texas Neurological Society, the Houston Academy of Medicine, and the Harris County Medical Society. He also served eight years on the National Board of Medical Examiners.
In addition to TMA’s Distinguished Service Award, Dr. Fleming has been honored with the National Medical Fellowships Champions of Health Distinguished Alumni Award; the Houston Medical Forum Lifetime Achievement Award; the Texas Neurological Society Lifetime Achievement Award; and the Federation of State Medical Boards of the United States’ Distinguished Service Award.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I look forward to going to see patients every day in the office. I love the interaction with my patients. You have to embrace medicine as a profession. It’s a way of life to me.”
After all these years, it still brings him joy to help people.
“I love … to give people comfort to know someone cares and there’s hope, which is part of why I'm in neurology. There's hope; you can't manufacture that.”
Dr. Fleming appreciates the support of his wife, Denise Joshua-Fleming; daughters Bria Fleming and Danielle Jenkins; and sons Christopher Joshua and Joel North, as well as his in-laws, nieces, and nephews. And he honors his brother, the late Jeff Fleming.
TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 55,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 110 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans.
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