Outstanding Leadership in Queens
2001 Honoree of the Queens Federation of Churches

Gerald W. Deas, M.D.

Dr. Gerald W. Deas still remembers the day in 1963 that changed his life. Then a resident at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, he walked into the waiting room and saw a woman eating chunks of laundry starch out of a brown paper bag. The patient, who had iron-deficiency anemia, looked up at him innocently, white flecks still clinging to her mouth. He was struck by the irony of the situation: She had no idea that eating starch was what had brought her to the hospital in the first place.

The young doctor decided something had to be done. He was well aware that many African-American women, especially those who were pregnant, craved laundry starch. He believed the condition — a form of pica, a perversion of appetite — likely stemmed from an ancient African ritual of eating clay. Among other problems, pica causes anemia so debilitating that some patients are unable to climb out of bed. Dr. Deas first warned his patients and local churches about the problem, then contacted the product's only manufacturer, but the company took no steps to protect its customers.

Undaunted, the physician vowed to step up the pressure. He launched a massive campaign to educate women about the hazards of pica. He dogged the Argo Starch Company. He bombarded health agencies with calls and letters. His battle spanned more than a decade, but he managed to convince the manufacturer to put a warning label on the box and to produce the substance in a powder form, which discouraged women from eating it. Thanks to Dr. Deas, laundry starch pica is virtually unheard of today. In 1985, the Food and Drug Administration awarded him a special citation for his work.

Nearly 40 years since his startling discovery at Kings County Hospital, Dr. Deas is still fighting for the patients in his community. An associate professor at Downstate Medical College in Brooklyn, he produces a syndicated health column, hosts the radio show Housecalls, and writes countless poems and songs on preventive medicine, such as "Mr. Mean Nicotine" and "Beat Up on Diabetes." He traces his passion for health education to his coming of age in an era when many African Americans had little access to regular health care. "There were so many needless amputations and deaths, he says, "I'd see it and know it didn't have to happen."

Small wonder a local reporter has dubbed him the dean of community medicine. At a time when few doctors make house calls, Dr. Deas frequently visits patients at home to make sure they get his message. There he does more than examine them: He scours their refrigerators to see what they're eating, makes sure they have proper heating and ventilation, and looks for clues to their illnesses. "One woman with pulmonary edema had an empty can of soda on her bedside table," he remembers. "I knew right away that it was the sodium benzoate in the soda that was contributing to the swelling."

The internist, long a "senior citizen" himself, shows no signs of slowing down. He recently began a poster campaign to combat asthma among inner-city kids, encouraging them to avoid cheap fruit-flavored drinks laced with additives that can cause bronchospasms. "I've never been one to say things are okay when they're not," he says. "The rest is just following through."

Queens Federation of Churches http://www.QueensChurches.org/ Last Updated February 2, 2005