FEBRUARY 22, 1971
Dr. Delano Meriwether seemed a character out of a tall tale in 1971, when he joined the indoor track circuit and began beating the world's top sprinters at the unheard-of age of 27. A brilliant hematologist at the Baltimore Cancer Research Center, he had started running for exercise one year earlier. He decided to get serious in the summer of '70 after watching U.S. sprinters run poorly in a track meet. "I could beat those guys," he told his wife, Myrtle, who said something calming like "Sure, honey." In his first indoor season, he ran six major races and won two of them.
Meriwether was a huge fan favorite, in part because of his eccentricity. His "uniform" was gold bathing trunks and suspenders, which he wore over a white hospital shirt. He had no coach and did most of his workouts alone, at night, on unlit outdoor tracks. Nevertheless, in the summer of '71 Meriwether won the 100-yard dash at the national outdoor championships in a wind-aided 9.0 seconds, and he might well have made the '72 Olympic team but for a knee injury he suffered while winning that year's national indoor title in the 60.
The first black graduate of Duke Medical School, Meriwether retired from competition a few years later and continued to pursue his principal career. After stints at Harvard Medical School and Boston's Thorndike Memorial Laboratory, he earned a master's in public health from Johns Hopkins. He stayed on to lecture there but was restless. "I wanted to serve directly, hands-on," he says. So in 1983 he moved to Gazankulu, a remote homeland in South Africa where children, women and the elderly had been relocated. For seven years, as one of six physicians serving more than half a million people, he worked ferrying refugees, petitioning aid organizations for supplies, teaching birth control and treating patients. He calls that time "the most rewarding of my life." In 1990 he returned to the U.S. and is now working as an emergency room doctor in the Washington, D.C., area and once a week drives about four hours to West Virginia to help staff two remote hospitals. He still runs twice a week and also lifts weights. "There are more exercise options today," says Meriwether, 53, who now lives in Potomac, Md., with his second wife, Nomvimbi, and their three children. "Had they been available 25 years ago, I might have found something more fitting for a physician to engage in." What a pity that would have been.