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Morris - A Beloved & Esteemed Physician, a Role Model of Humility Committed to Care for All

By: Gina Edwards

“Morris, no matter who he came in contact with, was just Morris,” says Verena Turner, wife of the late Dr. Morris Turner.

Dr. Turner was a beloved and esteemed, yet modest, obstetrician who served thousands of patients throughout his career in Pittsburgh and surrounding regions. Verena and Dr. Turner’s story began back in Georgia during the summer of 1966, where they first met in the lunchroom of their government workplace.

She did not know then that their chance meeting would turn into 46 years of marriage, or that her future husband would become such a beloved doctor to so many. Today, Dr. Turner’s storied legacy of heartfelt commitment to his patients is permanently memorialized with a portrait and plaque installed at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital. “He never changed, from the day we met,” Verena says. “Anyone would tell you that he was just down-to-earth.”

Dr. Turner’s Life and Career

The legacy installation at UPMC Magee describes a man who is larger than life. “Brilliant clinician and outstanding surgeon. Articulate and thoughtful leader. Distinguished colleague, teacher, and mentor,” the plaque installed in February 2016 reads. “Tireless healer who was devoted to the medically underserved of Western Pennsylvania. Dynamic past president of the medical staff.”

When Dr. Turner’s portrait, painted by Douglas Webster, graced the Birth Center for the first time, hundreds gathered to witness the unveiling and remember and celebrate his legacy, including many relatives and fellow church members.

To Verena, who spoke along with her sons at the event, that moment was the honor of a lifetime. “It’s just something I never dreamed would happen. With him being the first African American to be memorialized, it’s just awesome,” she says, adding, “If Morris were here, he would say ‘That’s not for me.’ He was just a humble person.”

Dr. Turner was born in rural Georgia to a family of sharecroppers. He attended Barney Colored Elementary School, a one-room schoolhouse, prior to receiving a full scholarship at age 16 to study biology and chemistry at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He then graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1973.

While completing his residency in obstetrics and gynecology at UPMC Magee, he met Dr. Robert Kisner. Together, they formed outreach programs to the city’s Black community. Eventually, the programs became the first Black specialty group practice in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, opened by Dr. Kisner along with Dr. Turner and Dr. Robert Thompson.

“Underserved communities were very important to him. He could have set up practice anywhere, but he chose to be in practice with Dr. Kisner in the East Liberty area,” Verena says. “That office serviced people from around Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Ohio, even had people coming in from Baltimore. Anywhere that service was needed, he was ready to go.”

Dr. Turner’s Impact on the Community

Unlike many other surgeons of his stature, Dr. Turner enjoyed hanging out with friends who had everyday professions: janitors and parking attendants — his fishing buddies, as Verena puts it. “The one thing he would tell me as he traveled through the hospitals, as a resident, ‘The best friends, the best people you can get to know, are the janitors and the food service workers,’” Verena says. “That’s just who he was.”

The stories about Dr. Turner’s dedication to his patients are many and telling — perhaps most famous is the 1994 blizzard when he walked for more than an hour to UPMC Magee to deliver a baby. “That’s something I wouldn’t have ever agreed to. I did not know,” Verena explains. She says that today, anywhere she goes — to church, the beauty shop, or even on the street — people come up and tell her how much Dr. Turner meant to them.

“Everyone has something to say about Dr. Turner,” she says. “To know that other people felt so strongly, the way he cared for his patients, just knowing him. People are just glad they’ve had a chance to meet him, that he passed through their lives. It makes me feel good, and it makes me feel sad. I am just grateful to God that he had touched so many people.”

Dr. Turner’s children have been involved with furthering their father’s impact on underserved communities through Journey to Medicine, a Gateway Medical Society program for preadolescents that is “building the pipeline for future physicians.”

Remembering Dr. Turner’s Legacy

During Black History Month each February, Dr. Turner’s story and legacy is woven into the Morris Turner Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at UPMC Magee.

Dr. Turner himself did not write down many talks or lectures, though. Despite the inquiries Verena receives about her husband’s speeches, she explains, “We don’t have anything written. Morris was the kind of person who would write a couple of words on the palm of his hand, on his arm, and stand up and speak for 45 to 50 minutes on it.”

The Magee auditorium hosting Dr. Turner’s namesake lecture is named after two doctors who were instrumental in his career: Dr. Terry Hayashi and Dr. Donald Hutchinson. “Those doctors, he emulated. Those were two of his favorite people,” Verena says. “He loved them dearly.” In fact, Dr. Hayashi was one of the examiners when Dr. Turner took his boards.

When Verena comes back to UPMC Magee, she stops on the second floor to “just sit there and marvel” at the portrait. “I’ve been to Magee about four of five times since the portrait was placed. It gives me comfort when I go there,” Verena says. “Though it’s comforting, I also get emotional. It’s just so special, I cannot even describe the way I feel about it.”

One week before Dr. Turner passed of a heart attack at age 65, he and Verena visited and took pictures at his old elementary school, which has become a historic landmark, with photos to remember the students who attended there and celebrate the success they have found in life. Inside is a photo of Dr. Turner and the honorary installation at UPMC Magee. Reflecting on these many moments and memories of her husband’s life, Verena says, “I was married to one great man.”