Legacy of Freda McKissic Bush Continues with Scholarship in UAMS College of Nursing

By Andrew Vogler

McKissic Bush, a leader in women’s health and sexual health for five decades, passed away in January 2023.

McKissic Bush, a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, was the fifth of nine children. When she was 16, she graduated as salutatorian from Townsend Park High School in 1963. It was her compassionate nature and desire to help others that moved her towards a career in nursing. However, due to segregation laws, there were few avenues for African Americans to pursue health care education in the South. With some persistence, Bush’s mother was able to convince Francis Russell, then-dean of the College of Nursing, to create a path for her to attend UAMS, initially with McKissic Bush taking classes at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and eventually matriculating to UAMS, where she graduated with honors in 1967.

Freda McKissic Bush

Freda McKissic Bush graduated from the College of Nursing in 1967.

“Attending college was really important to Freda’s family, essentially it was mandatory,” said Lee Bush, the husband of the late McKissic Bush. “There weren’t too many paths for Black students to enter into health care back then, so Freda had a lot of gratitude for UAMS in helping her begin her career in medicine.”

McKissic Bush was accepted into Columbia School of Nursing in New York City to pursue a master’s degree in nurse midwifery and would practice as a nurse-midwife for two years. She was eventually recruited to become the director of the Nurse Midwifery program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. However, she expressed some dissatisfaction with her role in providing care. It was her husband who encouraged her to attend medical school, and she enrolled in the University of Mississippi Medical School, graduating in 1983, and completing her residency at the University of Tennessee in Memphis in 1987.

McKissic Bush developed into a seminal figure in women’s health and sexual health. She practiced as an OB-GYN in the Jackson, Mississippi, area until her retirement in 2017, and served as a clinical instructor in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Department of OB-GYN and Department of Family Medicine.

She also served on numerous state and national boards and councils. She was a fellow of the American College OB-GYN and a board member of the American Association of Pro-life OB-GYN. She served on the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure from 1996-2006, including a term as president from 2000-2002. McKissic Bush assumed the position of chair of the Federation of State Medical Boards’ Board of Directors in 2010. In February 2012, she became president and CEO of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health. She also was a member of the Mississippi Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teen Pregnancy Prevention and served as chair of the Mississippi Medical Advisory Subcommittee. She served as a presidential appointee to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS from 2006-2009.

McKissic Bush was a proud graduate of the College of Nursing. During her time at UAMS, she was a recipient of a scholarship, which was designated for a well-deserving African American student. Her family recognized the importance of this scholarship in her education and wanted to create a scholarship that benefited future generations of nursing students.

“Because of the great education she received, Freda always wanted to give back to the university,” said Lee Bush. “While visiting UAMS, she was able to meet with Dean Cowan and was excited about what was happening in the College of Nursing, and she was anxious to contribute.”

The scholarship will be awarded annually to a student enrolled in the College of Nursing, with preference to a student from an underrepresented group, and will be selected by the UAMS College of Nursing Scholarship Committee.

Bush family

Freda McKissic Bush and Lee Bush were married in 1969, and raised four children and seven grandchildren. Image courtesy of the Bush family.

“Dr. Freda McKissic Bush’s story is an inspiring journey for practicing and aspiring nurses, and we are proud that part of her story happened at UAMS,” said Patricia Cowan, Ph.D., RN, dean of the UAMS College of Nursing. “We are honored that Dr. McKissic Bush’s family have chosen to continue this story through a scholarship in the College of Nursing. Through this gift, we are certain that she will inspire generations of nurses to come.”

In January, a celebration of life was held for McKissic Bush at the New Horizon Church in Jackson. Regina M. Benjamin, M.D., MBA, former U.S. surgeon general under President Barack Obama, spoke to attendees about her longtime friend and colleague.

“It was not always easy being two Black females from the South leading health care. So, Freda was the kind of friend for me that was my spiritual rock that I could cling to when I needed it. I always knew she was there,” said Benjamin. “She was there when I was nominated by President Obama and through all those years serving as your surgeon general. She helped me promote health care, access to care, prevention and all the things to help improve the health of the nation.”