Mario Efrain Ramirez, celebrated physician, Starr County judge, educator, member of the University of Texas Board of Regents, and son of Efren Manuel and Maria del Carmen (Hinojosa) Ramirez, was born in Roma, Texas, on April 3, 1926. He had three younger siblings: Maria del Carmen, Efren Ramirez, Jr., and Roel. In 1940 Efren Ramirez, Jr. died from an infection after he was initially misdiagnosed, and his death, in part, inspired Mario E. Ramirez to become a physician. At the age of sixteen, Ramirez graduated from high school in Rio Grande City in 1942. He attended the University of Texas at Austin but left in January 1945 because the University of Tennessee Medical School granted him early admission. Ramirez graduated in June 1948 and completed his internship and residency at Shreveport Charity Hospital in 1950. In 1949 he married Sarah Aycock, a nursing student. This couple had five children: Mario Ramirez, Jr.; Patricia Anne Kittleman; Norman M. Ramirez; Jaime E. Ramirez; and Roberto L. Ramirez.
In 1950 Ramirez returned to Texas and opened his general medical practice in Roma, where for much of his career he was the only practicing physician. In 1951 the Starr County Commissioners Court appointed him the county health officer, and he served from 1951 to 1969. In the early 1950s he accepted an appointment as a U.S. public health officer at border quarantine stations in Roma, Falcon Dam, and Rio Grande City.
From 1955 to 1957 Ramirez served in the United States Air Force. He was assigned to the 6048th Air Base Wing at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan, and worked at the Tokyo International Airport Dispensary, where servicemen obtained medical supplies or medicine. He ended his tour in Laredo, Texas, and was honorably discharged on April 8, 1958, at the rank of captain.
In 1958 Ramirez returned to Roma and opened the Manuel Ramirez Memorial Clinic and Hospital. The fifteen-bed facility, which Ramirez named in honor of his grandfather, was the first hospital in Roma. In 1964 it expanded to include twenty-one beds and a surgical wing; it continued operating until 1975. As the only hospital in Starr, Zapata, and Jim Hogg counties, the facility often relied on visiting specialists from as far as ninety miles away, such as Laredo surgeon Leonides Cigarroa, Sr., who drove to Roma once a week to perform surgery on Ramirez’s patients. During one visit, Ramirez inspired Cigarroa’s teenaged nephew, Francisco, to pursue a career in medicine. Francisco Cigarroa later went on to become an accomplished transplant surgeon, the first Hispanic president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and the first Hispanic chancellor of the University of Texas System.
In 1967 Ramirez achieved considerable notoriety after Hurricane Beulah, one of the strongest hurricanes in Texas history, flooded Texan and Mexican communities throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley. Ramirez spearheaded medical relief efforts in Roma, Rio Grande City, Camargo, and Ciudad Miguel Aleman and cared for or organized the treatment of thousands of displaced people. U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart later commended Ramirez with a special citation for his leadership role.
In 1969 Ramirez was appointed Starr County judge to finish the term of a departing judge. He was then elected to two additional terms in 1970 and 1974. During his tenure, he cleared a backlog of court cases, improved county finances, and strengthened the region’s infrastructure, including the construction of the Starr County Memorial Hospital, which opened in Rio Grande City in 1975. Ramirez relocated his medical practice to Rio Grande City that year and served as the hospital’s first chief of staff.
In addition to serving Starr County as a judge and health officer, Ramirez also directed the Starr County Migrant Health Project and the Starr County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Program, served one term as president of the Hidalgo-Starr County Medical Society in 1963, and sat on the board of directors for the Rio Grande Radiation Treatment Center Foundation, the South Texas Development Council, the Valley Federal Loan and Savings Association, and the Council for South Texas Economic Progress. At the state and national level, he served as a member of the Governor’s Committees on Mental Retardation and Tuberculosis, the Texas Department of Public Welfare’s Medical Care Advisory Committee, the Texas Rural Health Task Force, the National Health Advisory Council, and the National Advisory Council for Maternal, Infant, and Fetal Nutrition. Ramirez also took an active role in medical education. He was a preceptor for students at several prestigious medical schools, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Centers at Houston and San Antonio, and a member of the University of Texas Development Board and University of Texas Medical Branch Development Board.
Ramirez’s lifelong efforts in medicine, politics, and education were not overlooked. In May 1972 the Texas Medical Association honored Ramirez with its Distinguished Service Award. In 1975 he was elected president of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians. In 1976 the American Medical Association decorated him with the Benjamin Rush Award for Citizenship and Community Service. In 1978 the American Academy of Family Physicians and Good Housekeeping magazine named Ramirez the “Family Doctor of the Year.” President Jimmy Carter presented Ramirez with the award in a special ceremony at the White House. That same week, Ramirez was elected president of the Texas Medical Association for the 1979–80 term. He was the 114th president but the first Hispanic in that role. In 1980 Texas Monthly named Ramirez the state’s “Best Doctor.” In 1985 President Ronald Reagan nominated Ramirez to a six-year term on the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences Board of Regents. In 1989 Texas Governor Bill Clements named Ramirez to the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Ramirez was the second Rio Grande Valley Latino appointed in the board’s history. He also served on the Texas College and University System Coordinating Board (now the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board) from 1979 to 1985 and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas board of directors from 1973 to 1983. Roma mayor Alonzo H. Alvarez declared August 18, 1993, to be “Dr. Mario E. Ramirez Day.” In 1995 BorderFest, a cultural arts organization that holds a festival in Hidalgo, Texas, every March, named Ramirez its “Border Texan of the Year.” Other recognitions include the University of Texas at Austin Distinguished Alumnus Award, the Texas Academy of Family Physicians Distinguished Service Award, and the 1993 Doctor of the Year Award from the Hidalgo-Starr County Medical Society.
Ramirez retired from active medical practice in 1993 following a bout with cancer and relocated to McAllen, Texas. He then worked briefly for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas as Associate Medical Director for South Texas. In 1995 John Howe III, the president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA), appointed Ramirez Vice President for South Texas Border Initiatives. From that new position, Ramirez pushed for better health education in South Texas school curriculums, bigger immunization programs, and better health care for migrant workers. In 1996 he helped create Med-Ed, a UTHSCSA program that recruited and mentored Rio Grande Valley students interested in health science and medical careers. He stepped down from his post on March 31, 2007. At Ramirez’s retirement party, then-UTHSCSA President Francisco Cigarroa called Ramirez “one of the greatest heroes that Texas has produced.” In recognition of his contribution to medical education in South Texas, the library at the University of Texas Health Science Center Regional Academic Health Center (now part of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley) was renamed in his honor in 2007, and the Dr. Mario E. Ramirez Distinguished Professorship in Family and Community Medicine was established at UTHSCSA in 2008.
Ramirez died on May 22, 2017, and was buried at Roselawn Cemetery in McAllen.