Hidden Figures—Celebrating Women’s History Month
Like the film, Hidden Figures, where we learn of the African American women, black mathematicians, human computers, who worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, there are other Hidden Figures right amongst us, being hidden in plain sight. During this month of March, designated as Women’s History Month, my thoughts began to turn to the history of the African American female physician and our place in history. As I began reflecting, other than the African American women in my medical school and Residency program, who were the African American female pioneers, who were the ‘hidden figures’ upon whose shoulders I am standing as an African American female physician practicing medicine today?
I thought back to the different physicians who my personal physicians over the years have been, what I see in the rear-view mirror of my mind’s eye is a sea of white faces, mostly male, there have been five female physicians, one of those five female physicians is an African American female. When I attended medical school, despite being in a class that was almost 50% female and had about 12% underrepresented minorities, when I looked at the portraits of the school’s leadership hanging on the walls of the library, they were all male, all white. Now as an Attending Board Certified Family Medicine Specialist, when I attend medical conferences the vast majority of the Presenters at these conferences remain white and male.
So in this short essay, I would like to highlight some of these hidden figures of African American females in medicine and perhaps suggest the beginning of a framework that encourages some of us to step out of the shadows and into the light where those of us who are already in the profession can tap into the matrix, the already infinite web of possibilities, share our talents, our voices and inspire and encourage those who are coming behind us.
So, who was the very first African American female physician? My research revealed that this distinction belongs to Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831-1895). She graduated from medical school in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College and she remained the only African American woman to ever be graduated and awarded the degree of medical doctor from this institution. In 1883, Dr. Crumpler’s book was published; Book of Medical Disclosures, a book of medical advice for women and children. Dr. Crumpler chose to spend a large portion of her career working in the post-war South, caring for freed slaves, she dedicated herself to working with the Freedman’s Bureau and missionary and community groups. I remain completely awestruck and can only imagine what her life and career must have been like. Somehow, I know that her story is inextricably connected to mine and I owe this ancestor my gratitude.
Since I am an osteopathic physician, I just had to ask who is the ‘hidden figure’ and first African American female osteopathic physician? I was shocked to learn that the answer was a name already known to me. The first African American female osteopathic physician is Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee, (1942-) yes, as in the older sister of Diana Ross. I knew she was crowned with many firsts in her life, such as being the first African American woman to be appointed Dean of an American Medical School; she was also the first osteopathic physician to participate in the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellowship, however, I was a bit surprised to learn that the profession of Osteopathic Medicine did not have its first African American female graduate until Ross-Lee graduated in 1973! Some might say we have come a long way, however, I am of the mind that we have a long way yet to go in our collective evolution of humankind and humanity.
Thank you, Drs. Crumpler and Ross-Lee for your sacrifices and contributions. The genius of your minds and the beauty of your spirits in both the living world and in the ancestral realm do live on in the lives of today’s African American female physicians such as myself and my colleagues. Somehow in finding out a bit more about your lives, I feel less alone. I know when the next Monday morning rolls around, I will carry my head a little higher, knowing there is much work yet to be done. Knowing that our ‘hidden figures’ should not remain hidden and that the evolution and freedom of all of humanity depends upon uncovering the truths that reveal the dignity, splendor, brilliance, and magnificence of all.
Take a moment now to reflect back on your own life, have you ever known the healing touch of an African American female physician, why or why not? Who are some of the ‘hidden figures’ in your life history and what might you have to learn from them?
See you on the radio WURD or over at drcarolpenn.com!