When H. Earl Cotman, MD ’70, was 12 years old, a cow on his family farm in Archer, Fla., died of old age. It was 1955 and this simple act of nature was the starting point for a lifetime of medical study and practice for the young Cotman, who dissected the cow’s skeleton to learn more about its anatomy.Fast-forward to the turbulent 1960s. Cotman graduated from Florida A&M University with a degree in biological sciences at a time when civil rights protests and campus sit-ins were a regular occurrence. He went on to attend Howard University to earn his master of science in biochemistry and then to the UF College of Medicine.
When Cotman graduated from the College of Medicine in 1970, he was one of two African-American students who were the first to earn medical degrees from the predominantly white institution. Despite simmering racial tensions within the university, Cotman was never dissuaded or distracted from completing his studies.
“Everyone at UF was unequivocally fair,” he said. “My exams, my work were treated the same as every other student there. If there was tension, I wasn’t aware of it.”
Fast-forward again to 2010. Cotman is a radiation oncologist practicing in St. Petersburg and will soon mark the 30th anniversary of his graduation from the College of Medicine. It has been a professional life filled with firsts.
He was one of the first African-American physicians to become board-certified in radiation oncology, and he has been on the cutting edge of the profession ever since. He was an early proponent of the use of linear acceleration in the treatment of cancer and has witnessed older therapies become new again, such as the transition of cobalt radiation now reinvented as the gamma knife for tumor removal. He has enjoyed fervent support throughout his career from his wife, Jacqueline, whom he met while both were at Florida A&M. He sees growing interest in medicine from his daughter, now in her junior year of college.
He also saw an essential need for support for the College of Medicine and seized an opportunity last year to give back to the institution that had given him his start.
“I was startled by a photograph I saw of the medical student study area,” he said. “It was so crowded, overflowing with students. It was obvious the college needed better facilities.”
Cotman was one of the first alumni to embrace the Medical Alumni Challenge — an invitation by the Medical Alumni Board of Directors to raise $2.5 million toward a new education building through gifts from 100 alumni of $25,000 each.
Cotman didn’t end his philanthropy there. He and his wife recently made a gift to the Cullen W. Banks, MD, Scholarship Fund, which was established by the Alachua County Medical Society in honor of Dr. Banks, who practiced medicine in Gainesville for 46 years before his retirement in 1996. Banks was the first African-American physician to have full privileges in Alachua County.
“He was a brilliant physician,” Cotman said. “I have nothing but admiration and respect for him.”
Within a life of incredible forward momentum, Cotman has given back in so many ways — as a physician, an educator and a philanthropist. His advice for the physicians of tomorrow?
“Follow your dreams. A career in medicine has exceptional flexibility,” he said. “Just remember to be dedicated to your pursuit.”