Almost 40 years ago, during my internal medicine clerkship at Penn, I walked into a patient’s room, introduced myself as a medical student and proceeded to take a brief medical history. After I had finished, the intern went to see the patient but soon emerged and laughingly told me that the patient wanted to know why “that girl” had not cleaned up when she was in the room
I was stunned. My white coat, my stethoscope, my deportment, and my words had been instantaneously erased – the only things that registered for the patient were my race and my gender. I had wanted to be a physician since I was six years old and had worked hard, had sacrificed and had excelled academically to achieve this goal. But for this patient, a white man, I was a black "girl" and, as such, a maid.
The other members of the medical team – all white men – viewed the incident as a joke. The attending physician even quipped, "Let's go see Vanessa fluff up some pillows." I don't think they intended further hurt. But they failed to recognize that the patient's words were part of a wounding legacy where black women's presence in medicine is frequently questioned and invalidated. Their ability to laugh it off isolated me from the collegial support that I should have expected as part of the team. It was the first time where I was forced to accept that for some people my skin color and gender were incompatible with being a physician. It would not be the last, and it still stings.
Last month, a Delta flight attendant refused to allow Dr. Tamika Cross, a fourth-year obstetrics and gynecology resident, provide care to a sick passenger. She did not believe that Cross was an "actual physician" because she was a black woman. The tenacity of stereotypes about black women as physicians four decades after I first encountered them is stunning. They persist despite African American women physicians recently serving as surgeon general and as heads of major health care institutions (including the nation's largest health care philanthropy, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation). They persist despite the visibility of black women physicians in popular culture from Gray's Anatomy to Doc McStuffins.
When I was in medical school I frequently sought advice and comfort from Dr. Helen O. Dickens, a pioneering physician who was the first black woman inducted into the American College of Surgeons and appointed to the medical school faculty at Penn. In addition to being a medical student, I was a graduate student in the history of medicine. Dr. Dickens encouraged me to research the history of black women physicians and I have devoted much of my career to doing so.
The first black woman physician graduated from medical school over 150 years ago. In March 1864, Rebecca Lee received her degree from the New England Female Medical College. The minutes of the faculty meeting that awarded her a "doctress of medicine" degree noted that she was "colored." Thus distinctions based on race and gender formed the foundation of the history of black women in medicine and influenced the careers of black women who followed in Lee's footsteps.
Excavating the lives of my professional foremothers has inspired me, especially when I encounter situations where my presence in medicine feels undermined. I have learned that I stand on the shoulders of a legion of black women who, frequently and at great personal costs, had to battle racism and sexism to find their place in the medical world. They had to defy deeply entrenched stereotypes about the status, abilities, and work of African American women. Yet, despite these challenges they made invaluable contributions to medicine and the communities in which they practiced.
In 1933, W.E.B. DuBois wrote an article in the Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), that asked, "Can a Colored Woman Be a Physician?" Its fundamental question – raised in Jim Crow America – echoes across 83 years of history and achievement to Tamika Cross's story. She described the discriminatory behavior of the flight attendant in a Facebook post that and it went viral. Scores of black women physicians have responded by posting their stories and photos on social media with hashtags #WhataDoctorLooksLike and #WeDoExist. They make plain that their answer to DuBois' query is a triumphant "Yes!"
Vanessa Northington Gamble is University Professor of Medical Humanities and Professor of Health Policy at George Washington University. A proud native of West Philadelphia, she is completing a biography of another Philadelphian, Dr. Virginia M. Alexander, an African-American physician-activist.
Read more about The Public's Health.