The newly opened Thaddeus J. Bell, M.D., Family Health Center in Summerville is named in honor of one of the most remarkable, accomplished and beloved citizen-physicians of South Carolina. It would take a book to do justice to the breadth and depth of Thad Bell’s contributions and achievements at the local, national and international levels, but we believe his story should be told to a wide audience, even though in this abbreviated form.
Thad graduated from South Carolina State University and in his early career was a schoolteacher in Gaffney, where he was the first African-American to teach in an all-white high school in South Carolina. He later moved to Charleston where he graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina, entering the practice of family medicine. In 1980 he founded the Cross Family Health Center, a free clinic for the underserved people in that rural community. He was the only physician in Cross for 10 years and continued to work at the clinic for decades.
Thad has served his country with distinction as a flight surgeon at the rank of major in the Air Force Reserve. He is a graduate of the U.S. School of Aerospace Medicine and served on active duty in Operation Desert Storm.
Although Thad never participated in organized sports in college, he knew that he could run fast. Starting at the age of 43, he competed at the international level in Masters Track and Field, winning the world championship several times in multiple events, in successive age groups: 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, and 55-59. He holds all of the South Carolina Masters Track and Field records in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash, and has been voted one of South Carolina’s Top 100 Athletes of the 20th Century.
In memory of his son, Thaddeus John Bell II, Thad joined the Lowcountry’s well-known runner Bob Schlau in starting the Bell/Schlau track and field seminar for Lowcountry children. For 20 years children have been taught the fundamentals of running, jumping and throwing. Thad has been chairman of the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness under three governors.
Thad joined the faculty of MUSC in 1993, and served as associate dean for Minority Affairs in the College of Medicine under Dean Layton McCurdy. MUSC President James Edwards appointed him director of the university’s Office of Diversity. In those positions, Thad created many programs to improve the recruitment, retention and graduation rates of minority students at MUSC. His many efforts were highly successful in all six colleges of the university.
Thad’s career took a new direction in 2005 when he attended a meeting that focused on health disparities, which inspired him to address health disparities in South Carolina. He founded Closing the Gap in Health Care (CGHC), which aims to decrease health disparities by providing health education for African-Americans and other underserved populations. Several radio stations broadcast his health tips, which are medically important, easy to understand and humorous. From the outset, the tips generated strong positive feedback. His radio health tips, television show and CGHC website reach over 300,000 people each week, and have been recognized several times as among the country’s best consumer health information programs. Thad’s Closing the Gap in Health Care Fitness Festival has introduced several thousand African-American students to a healthy lifestyle for more than 25 years. He created the Low Country Jazz Festival to raise funds for his Thaddeus John Bell, M.D., Scholarship Endowment, which benefits several African-American students at MUSC every year.
As a result of these programs and many others that Thad created, he has received numerous national and regional awards.
Dr. Bell’s achievements as a world-class athlete, practicing physician and MUSC administrator, and his tireless application of his unique knowledge and skills to the education and guidance of thousands of young South Carolinians, probably are unparalleled among American physicians. We are proud to count Thad as a dear friend and as one of Charleston’s most outstanding community leaders.
Dr. Robert M. Sade is a cardiac surgeon and director of MUSC’s Institute of Human Values in Health Care. Dr. Layton McCurdy is a former chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and is the dean emeritus of MUSC’s College of Medicine.