By Patricia Burstein
November 01, 1976 12:00 PM

Dr. W. (for Wilhelm) Delano Meriwether has a telephone at his ear most of the day instead of a stethoscope. “I don’t fit the image of the physician,” he says, “because I’m a federal employee.”

He puts it too modestly. As an administrator for the Public Health Service, the 33-year-old Meriwether is director of the government’s $135 million swine flu immunization program. For the past four months, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the doctor’s meetings, telephone calls and indeed his whole life have been dominated by headline-making controversies.

First there were critics who said that President Ford’s plan to inoculate 145 million Americans was politically motivated. Then the insurance industry refused to protect vaccine manufacturers against possible lawsuits. Meriwether was among those who persuaded Congress to take on that responsibility. Shots were scheduled to start last July but had to be delayed until October because of a shortage of vaccine. Then, when 35 people died recently after being inoculated, Meriwether had the vaccine carefully checked out by the FDA’s Bureau of Biologics before announcing to an apprehensive public that “there is absolutely no evidence to link the vaccine with the deaths.”

Meriwether says now that 35 million doses have been made available in all parts of the U.S., and that six million people had received their shots by mid-October. His job from this point on is to be “a clearinghouse of information. There are no pending crises.”

That means Meriwether can pay attention again to a hobby that has become almost a second life. It is running, which he discovered at a surprisingly advanced age. The 6’1″, 165-lb. sprinter, named for FDR, was the son of a high school principal father and a teaching mother. He grew up in Charleston, S.C., where “I didn’t have time for athletics,” he recalls. “Anyway, I was quite tiny.”

An all-A student, he completed his premed studies in three years at Michigan State University and was the first black to attend Duke University Medical School. He did leukemia research at the National Cancer Institute Center in Baltimore, spent a year at Harvard working in the wards at Boston City Hospital and, during a tour as a White House fellow, started with the Public Health Department in 1973.

Only after he became a doctor did Meriwether find time for sprinting. He was 27 when he saw a track meet on TV and decided to try it himself. He turned out to be a natural. He won the 1971 National AAU championship in the 100-yard dash in nine seconds flat, which would have been a world record if the wind had been less strong. The next year he took the AAU indoor title in the 60-yard dash. A pulled leg muscle kept Meriwether out of the past summer’s Olympics.

Had he been in Montreal, the black protests would have seemed familiar. He has been a target of professional, not athletic, criticism from members of his own race. “Some people may say, ‘Look at Meriwether sitting in D.C. when we need every black physician to take care of the black folk,’ ” he admits. “But public health decisions have impact on the poor and the minorities. Why, we’re giving these swine flu shots free to everybody. This is the first time that we truly have had a national program to protect all Americans.”