When Dr. Maxie Collier became Baltimore’s health commissioner in 1987, he was the first Black person to ever lead the Baltimore City Health Department.
Collier, who served in that role until 1990, was well aware of how health outcomes were intertwined with other socioeconomic issues — and how they disproportionately impacted Black Baltimoreans, low-income residents, and other marginalized communities, Mayor Brandon Scott said.
“Dr. Collier was a visionary leader who recognized that health equity cannot be achieved without addressing systemic injustices,” Scott said. “He knew the impact of social determinants of health – like poverty, racism, and housing instability – and his leadership and advocacy paved the way for many of the public health initiatives that we continue to champion today.”
Baltimore leaders on Monday honored Collier, who died in 1994, by renaming the city health department’s headquarters after him.
Baltimore City Councilmember Robert Stokes introduced the resolution calling for the tribute.
“They always say the work you do speaks for you,” Stokes said. “I think and I know Dr. Collier’s work has spoken.”
Collier’s wife, Dr. Katherine Collier, said she is surprised but grateful that the headquarters at 1001 E. Fayette St. now shares her late husband’s name.
“On behalf of my family, and on behalf of everyone whose lives were touched by Maxie, I want to thank Mayor Scott and Councilman Stokes for this honor,” she said. “It was unexpected. I still have to pinch myself. I was saying today ‘I’m going to drive down Fayette Street every chance I get now.’”
Collier and then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke were early supporters of Baltimore’s needle exchange program, an initiative that “got you guys into a lot of trouble back then,” Scott said. “But as I’ll always tell you, you guys look like geniuses right about now. I wish they listened to you back then. We wouldn’t be in this situation that we’re in today.”
In a statement after Collier’s passing in 1994, Schmoke said Collier helped shaped his views on treating substance use disorder.
“I will remember Maxie as a brilliant psychiatrist and a caring and compassionate public health official. It was in discussions with Maxie that I first heard the strongest critique of the war on drugs and an outline of a sensible alternative strategy,” Schmoke said.
Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said the needle exchange program remains an important tool for addressing substance use disorder and blood-borne diseases.
“This program is an essential part of our harm reduction strategy, reducing the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases and connecting individuals with substance use disorder to treatment services and health care services,” Dzirasa said.
Dzirasa added that Collier helped create the path for her to become the city’s first Black female health commissioner in 2019.
“Dr. Collier’s legacy can be seen and felt every day here in Baltimore,” she said. “He paved the way for me, the first Black female health commissioner in Baltimore, and his leadership and dedication to public health have created a strong foundation for the work we do today. It is a privilege and an honor to follow in his footsteps.”
Before heading the city’s health department, Collier had his own psychiatric practice and was the Chief of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
An ardent advocate for mental health, Collier co-founded the Black Mental Health Alliance in 1983. Today, the alliance provides workshops and forums, a referral database, school-based mental health services, and other resources.
Andrea Brown, executive director of the Black Mental Health Alliance, said the past four decades have been marked by many positive changes – as well as persistent issues.
“Now almost 40 years later, while much has changed, some has not, but there’s work to be done,” Brown said. “And so we offer to everybody today to be a part of the vineyard; be a part of the labors that help us in this work.”
Richard Rowe, the alliance’s resident consultant, said serving as Baltimore’s health commissioner was more than a 9-to-5 job for Collier.
“He was a 14- to 16-hour commissioner. He was not a part-time commissioner,” Rowe said.
Reading from Collier’s book, “Phoenix Rising,” Rowe shared a passage in which Collier wrote, “We must be focused instead on the long-term psychological wellbeing of our people. I have not expressed these views with arrogance but with humility out of concern for the welfare of my people, my city, my community, my nation, my family, and my children.”
Collier continued: “We must move from preoccupation with rejection to preoccupation with excellence; from believing we are a powerless minority to believing that we can control our own destiny.”
Scott said that “naming the city health department headquarters after Dr. Collier is a proper tribute to his life and legacy” of addressing public health needs in Baltimore and beyond. He also hopes residents remember that there is much to do.
“For all those who work in the health department and all of our residents and visitors who drive by, this will serve as a reminder of the impact that one individual can have on a community and on an entire field of study,” Scott said. “It also serves as a reminder of the work that we still have to do … to really fulfill that vision and legacy that he had.”
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