Dr. Ashe had a self-described love affair with Howard University from childhood, when he dreamed of being involved in the medical school. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Howard, Dr. Ashe enlisted in the US Marines Corps. He remarked that the day he enlisted was both the best—and the worst—day of his life. “[The Marines] have a motto that I still remember. They say, ‘the difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little time.’…I live my life on that principle.”
After an honorable discharge in 1953, Dr. Ashe was hired at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He worked at NIH for 20 years, and was the first African-American to become a senior scientific advisor at the National Institute for Dental Research. In 1961, after spending time studying the herpes simplex virus, he published his first paper in the journal, Archives of Oral Biology. In 1962, he earned a master’s degree in microbiology from Howard.
In 1971, Dr. Ashe received a call from the dean of Howard University College of Medicine, asking him to join the administration. Dr. Ashe began his work at Howard later that year, starting as an assistant dean and instructor of microbiology. In 1976, Dr. Ashe enrolled as a PhD student in the department of microbiology, working during the day and taking classes at night. He completed his longed-for doctoral degree in 1984.
When Dr. Ashe first arrived at Howard, there was no formal process for reviewing research. He formed the Human Research Review Committee, charged with reviewing all human research in the College of Medicine, which eventually transformed into the first institutional review board (IRB) at the University. He served as executive secretary for the IRB from 1971 until 2006.
While involved with the IRB, Dr. Ashe began attending PRIM&R conferences, and was invited by William Freeman, a PRIM&R Board member, to speak at a conference sponsored by the Applied Research Ethics National Association (PRIM&R’s former membership division) on a panel titled Can Tuskegee Happen Again? Held in 1998, this conference marked the beginning of Dr. Ashe’s involvement with PRIM&R; he was elected to PRIM&R’s Board of Directors that year, serving until 2010.
During his time on the board, Dr. Ashe and Dr. Freeman created the organization’s Institutional Capacity Building Scholarship Program, which was established to help individuals from under-represented minority institutions take advantage of participating in PRIM&R’s annual conferences. The program continues today, and has been instrumental in bringing professionals from historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges, and Hispanic-serving institutions to PRIM&R events for more than a decade.
Dr. Ashe also worked with Charles McCarthy, another PRIM&R Board member, to develop the Pillars of PRIM&R Program to recognize sustained contributions from members of the PRIM&R board to PRIM&R and to provide support for early career professionals.
Dr. Freeman noted Dr. Ashe’s passing by sharing the following: “I learned much from Warren. It was my pleasure to work closely with him on several PRIM&R Board issues, including the creation of our scholarship program. When I last met him in DC, he gave me a tour of the area in and near Chinatown, including the building that was first a synagogue, then [his beloved] Turner Memorial AME Church and now is the historic I Street Synagogue. To Warren’s family, I say, May his memory be a blessing. His memory is a blessing for me.”
In 2013, Dr. Ashe sat down with Gigi McMillan for an interview for PRIM&R's People and Perspectives initiative. During his interview, Dr. Ashe discusses his life, from early childhood in the segregated South to becoming the first African-American senior scientific advisor at the NIH.
He goes on to describe his time at Howard, his quest to earn a PhD, and his involvement with PRIM&R’s Board of Directors.
Though Dr. Ashe experienced some health challenges toward the end of his life, he maintained his positive outlook. “I pray constantly to…let me live my life to the best I can…Let me come to the end of my journey, and I can say truthfully that I have not wounded any souls…I have lived by what I believe is right, not what other people think should be right. And I try to be true to that.”
Dr. Ashe was an important friend, colleague, and mentor to so many, touching many lives with his wisdom and sincerity. “Because I’ve had so many experiences, I want to share them with everybody I possibly can. [There are] some people who may think ‘well that’s just an old Black guy just talking.’ But believe me it’s not that. I want to leave a legacy behind me so people know that Warren Kelly Ashe has been here.”
As PRIM&R’s Managing Director, Kimberly Hensle Lowrance, noted: “I am very lucky to have known Warren. He was such a special man—so committed to research, to doing better, to supporting one another. He always provided great advice to our staff and was a warm, lovely human being. I will miss him.”
The PRIM&R Board and staff extend their deepest sympathies to Warren’s beloved family.