Paul F. O’Rourke MD, MPH ’60, a California physician nationally known for his long involvement in public health issues and political controversy, died at his home in Aptos on Jan. 28, 2012. He was 87.
Dr. O’Rourke made headlines 50 years ago over his efforts to improve working conditions and health care for migrant farmworkers along the Mexican border. He later entered government at both state and national levels to become an advocate and official consultant on issues of public health and poverty.
As a young physician, Dr. O’Rourke left a flourishing private practice in Novato to earn a public health degree at UC Berkeley. He took his first job as county public health officer in El Centro (Imperial County), where he tried to enforce a law requiring growers to provide workers with portable toilets.
The growers resisted, and in the fields where lettuce harvesters were striking, a growers’ group charged that the new health officer was siding with the strikers while his first wife, Virginia, a Quaker, had already enraged many in the county because she refused to salute the flag at a political meeting.
Dr. O’Rourke stirred more controversy when he inspected county jail facilities, which were filled with lettuce strikers, and reported that kitchens were dirty and toilet facilities were inadequate – charges immediately denounced by the sheriff.
Officers of the Imperial County Medical Society – and even some of his former Marin County colleagues – charged that Dr. O’Rourke was inappropriately radical for publicly criticizing what he called “organized medicine” and campaigning for what would become the Medicare program.
Dr. O’Rourke finally told the Imperial County Board of Supervisors that rumors were swirling that he and his wife were Communist Party members, a charge he denied. He offered to resign as public health director. The supervisors voted unanimously to accept his offer, despite his strong support from El Centro’s mayor, many local physicians and state health officials.
The following year, California’s Health Department hired Dr. O’Rourke as state director of farmworker health services. In his first term, Gov. Edmund G. Brown appointed him as the first director of the new California Office of Economic Opportunity.
Then-U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy recruited Dr. O’Rourke to investigate health problems in Brooklyn, N.Y. Dr. O’Rourke then became the leading adviser to the Senate Health Committee that was developing the federal Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal in California. He was also an adviser to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare on enforcement of the federal Civil Rights Act.
Dr. O’Rourke eventually returned to California, where he advised many state and local agencies and also served on the state’s Little Hoover Commission.
Dr. O’Rourke was born in Cambridge, Mass., and graduated from Harvard Medical School.
He is survived by his second wife, Marilyn, and their eight adult children.