Columbia’s African-American Pioneers in Medicine
From 19th century medical students denied their degrees to today's surgeons, there are many African-American clinicians with connections to Columbia University Irving Medical Center you should know.
As director of Harlem Hospital’s Department of Medicine during the 70s and 80s, Gerald Thomson, MD, “exemplified what it meant to be a physician dedicated to community, generating standards, demanding quality of care, and commanding respect," says one former resident.
During his own residency at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, where he helped set up and direct one of the nation’s earliest and largest kidney dialysis programs, Thomson witnessed the disparities between public and private hospitals. He was recruited to Columbia in 1970 to begin a dialysis program at Harlem Hospital, where he directed the medicine department from 1971 to 1985—a time when New York City’s public hospitals operated under severe resource restrictions.
In response, he founded the Society of Urban Physicians with colleagues and organized several hundred New York City public hospital senior physicians to advocate for improved conditions in public hospitals. Thomson also called public attention to the high death rates and poor health among residents of central Harlem. He secured federal funding to establish a primary care network in Harlem, still functioning today as the Harlem Renaissance Network.
Columbia University Trustee Kenneth Forde, MD’59, was the only African-American in his class at VP&S, and he followed a saying from his great-grandmother: “Race is something you run…and win.”
Forde had to turn to that advice multiple times in his career, including the time during his last year of medical school when, despite receiving praise for his performance during a surgical rotation, he was told he had no chance of becoming a resident in that department. “I learned early that you have to know how to find a way to get around it and overcome it,” Forde told Columbia Medicine magazine in 2007.
After earning his medical degree, Forde trained as a surgeon at Columbia, where he remained for more than 50 years. Along the way, he helped to pioneer the use of colonoscopy screenings for prevention and early detection of colon cancer (and performed Katie Couric's first colonoscopy on live television) and he rose to the highest ranks of his field of gastrointestinal and colorectal surgery.
Forde retired from surgery in 2006 and became a Trustee of Columbia University in 2007.
David Kearney McDonogh, MD, (1821-1893) was born an enslaved person in Louisiana and studied at what is now Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons as part of a 19th century movement to send African-Americans freed from slavery to Liberia. He completed his education in 1847, but he did not emigrate, and Columbia did not award him an MD degree. That didn’t stop him from becoming the nation’s first African-American eye specialist.
McDonogh always identified himself as a VP&S graduate, though the medical school did not retain any record of McDonogh’s time at VP&S. Historians confirmed his attendance through records stored in the Library of Congress.
At the 2018 VP&S graduation, Dean Lee Goldman awarded McDonogh the MD degree he would have received more than 170 years ago had he not been African-American. Goldman handed the posthumous degree to Patricia Worthy, McDonogh’s great-great-granddaughter.
Pediatrician Doris Wethers, MD, a VP&S faculty member at St. Luke’s Hospital from 1974 to 1999, was a pioneer in the research of sickle cell disease and patient care.
During her time at St. Luke’s, which was affiliated with VP&S from 1947 until 2013, Wethers was part of a group of physicians whose landmark study showed that an antibiotic reduced mortality in children with sickle cell. That led to a push to screen all newborns for sickle cell, which had already started in New York in 1975.
In 1987, Wethers chaired an NIH panel that recommended newborn screening for all babies. Only 10 states at the time offered such screening; universal screening became available in all states in 2006.
Wethers was the third African-American woman to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine and, in 1958, became St. Luke’s first black attending physician.
During the 1920s there were fewer than 100 black women doctors in the country. In 1977, the New York Times interviewed a handful of those pioneering black women. Among them, Agnes Griffin, MD’23, the first black woman to earn an MD from VP&S, who told the Times she never felt particularly “determined or strong‐willed” but was “just doing what comes naturally.”
Read more: Black Women M.D.'s: Spirit and Endurance
Charles Drew, MD, MSD’40, arrived at Columbia after receiving his medical degree to get surgical training and pursue a doctorate in medical science. His research on how to “bank” blood to make it available for transfusions provided the groundwork for an experimental blood bank set up in Presbyterian Hospital in 1939. The seven-month experiment was the basis for Dr. Drew’s dissertation, “Banked Blood,” for his MSD degree.
The work established Drew as a leading expert on blood procurement and processing, and he was called upon to draw up a plan to provide plasma for the British at the beginning of World War II. He ran the program, Blood for Britain, and his expertise and leadership, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, were largely responsible for the program's success.
Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, DDS’23, was Columbia dental school’s first female African-American graduate and became the second female African-American dentist in New York state. She spent her career in Harlem, where she looked after the oral health of such luminaries as nightclub owner Ed Small, surgeon and civil rights leader Louis T. Wright, MD, and author James Weldon Johnson.
Delany with her sister, Sarah, became celebrities in their own right when their memoir, “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years," was published in 1993. A Broadway show and TV movie followed. Delany (on the right in the video above) died in 1995 at age 104.
It was 1958. The up-and-coming Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was signing books in Harlem when a woman approached and stabbed him. Rev. King was rushed to Harlem Hospital, where three surgeons attended to his wounds. Two of the surgeons were African-American and later became Columbia faculty members: Aubré de Lambert Maynard, MD, the hospital’s chief of surgery, and John W.V. Cordice Jr., MD, chief of thoracic and vascular surgery.
In a 1996 interview with the New York Times, Maynard recalled: ''His life was at stake, it was a challenge. Could Harlem Hospital show that it was up to this task? It was a city hospital, and it was looked down upon. It was up to me to show the world that it could be done there.''
Just 6 percent of the nation’s dental profession comes from underrepresented minority groups, a statistic that the College of Dental Medicine’s Dennis Mitchell, DDS, is working to change.
At Columbia’s dental school, Mitchell has been instrumental in increasing the number of underrepresented students to more than 20 percent in today’s classes from just 3 percent in 2003. Summer pipeline programs at CUIMC for college students have helped to increase representation of these groups among Columbia's dental students, Mitchell told Insight into Diversity.
Mitchell is also working to improve diversity among Columbia’s faculty as vice provost of faculty diversity and inclusion at Columbia University and nationally through his role with the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.
"Research empirically supports what we see anecdotally," he recently wrote in an op-ed, Why is Diversity So Important. "Diverse groups and diversity of thought produce a myriad of positive outcomes, including more innovative solutions to complex problems, more productive collaborations, and richer learning experiences."
As Yvonne Thornton, MD’73, tells the story in her memoir, “The Ditchdigger’s Daughters,” her father, who sometimes held down three jobs to make ends meet, decided that his six daughters would become doctors to achieve a better life. Her father’s dream became her own at age 8, when she witnessed a woman giving birth in an elevator and exclaimed, “I want to be around when one person becomes two people!”
Thornton excelled at VP&S at a time when women obstetricians were rare and black female obstetricians were even rarer. She later became the first African-American woman in the United States to be board-certified in high-risk obstetrics, and as one of the first in the United States to use chorionic villus sampling for prenatal genetic testing, she was among a group of practitioners whose work persuaded the FDA to approve the procedure.
Ophthalmologist and laser scientist Patricia Bath, MD, is famous for developing a revolutionary technique for removing cataracts that is used around the world to restore sight.
Her place in Columbia history dates back to her years as an intern and fellow at Harlem Hospital and CUIMC, when she found that blindness was twice as common in African-Americans than in whites. She concluded that the difference arose from disparities in care, and she proposed a new discipline, known as community ophthalmology, to offer care to underserved populations. This outreach detected previously undiagnosed problems in thousands of people whose sight was subsequently saved.
Bath also convinced Columbia ophthalmologists to provide free eye surgery for blind patients at Harlem Hospital's Eye Clinic, which did not perform eye surgery at the time. Because of her efforts, the hospital’s first major eye operation was performed in 1970. Bath recently received the John Stearns Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Clinical Practice from the New York Academy of Medicine.
Read more: The Right to Sight
As New York City health commissioner from 2014 to 2018, Mary T. Bassett, MD’79, worked to address the racism at the root of the city’s health disparities between white residents and communities of color.
“There is great injustice in the daily violence experienced by young black men,” she wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine about the Black Lives Matter movement. “But the tragedy of lives cut short is not accounted for entirely, or even mostly, by violence. In New York City, the rate of premature death is 50 percent higher among black men than among white men...common medical conditions take lives slowly and quietly—but just as unfairly.”
The daughter of peace and civil rights activists, Bassett grew up in Washington Heights and was drawn to medicine after a summer job as a census taker. “I was given the privilege of going into people’s homes, seeing what they put on their table for dinner, sitting down, and taking information about their lives,” she told Columbia Medicine magazine in 2015. “I wanted to do more than just register statistics.” Bassett also was an associate professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health from 1995 to 2018.
Patient education is paramount for Donna Mendes, MD’77, the first female African-American vascular surgeon certified by the American Board of Surgery.
Many people don’t understand that "what happens with heart vessels also happens with the other vessels in the body,” she told Columbia University’s Record. To get the word out, Mendes has worked on outreach programs, including a video campaign from the Association of Black Cardiologists featuring poet Maya Angelou.
“I want to let people know that the same blockages occur elsewhere with the same serious consequences—stroke when the neck vessels are blocked and gangrene when the leg vessels are blocked.
Velma Scantlebury, MD’81, recalls rushing to her undergrad premed office to share the good news that she had been accepted to Columbia’s medical school. She was greeted with disappointed looks; after all, the school’s favorite Caucasian student did not get admitted. Told she was accepted so Columbia could fill a quota, Scantlebury decided it didn’t matter. The outcome would be the same and in four years she would be a doctor.
Scantlebury went on to train under the renowned Thomas Starzl at Pittsburgh and became the first African-American transplant surgeon in the United States. She helped launch a living kidney donor program at Pitt and is now at Christiana Care in Wilmington, Delaware, where she is associate chief of transplant surgery. She has performed more than 2,000 transplants.
Margaret Morgan Lawrence, MD’40, grew up in Mississippi and was inspired to become a doctor by the death of her only sibling, who died before Lawrence was born. She witnessed her parents' grief and hoped that as a doctor she could prevent the deaths of other children.
After graduating from medical school, she applied to Columbia's pediatrics residency but was denied a place because of her gender. Instead, she trained at Harlem Hospital, where "her eyes opened to the connections between physical illness and community health,” wrote her daughter in Lawrence's biography, Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer.
She later trained in psychiatry at New York State Psychiatric Institute and psychoanalysis at the Columbia Psychoanalytic Center and became the first African-American female psychoanalyst in the United States and the first black female physician certified by the American Board of Pediatrics. She developed some of the first child therapy programs in schools, day care centers, and hospitals, including the school programs in Rockland County, New York, and the Division of Child Psychiatry at Harlem Hospital.
Even in medical school, Elizabeth Bishop Davis, MD’49, was already committed to providing psychiatric services for the people of Harlem. Her father, the Rev. Shelton Hale Bishop, helped establish the LaFargue Clinic, Harlem’s first mental health clinic, with novelist Richard Wright and psychotherapist Fredric Wertham, MD; Davis spent her first year in school working as a clerk at the clinic. At the time, most New York City hospitals and clinics did not treat black people in need of psychiatric care.
After graduation, Davis opened a private practice in psychiatry. She joined the Columbia faculty in 1957 and founded Harlem Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry in 1962.
By the time she retired in 1978 from running the department, it had grown to include an adult inpatient unit, a geriatric clinic, children’s services, and a psychiatric residency training program, among other features. “Under her initiative and guidance, this service has become one of the outstanding service, teaching, and training centers in the city,” wrote one colleague when Davis was considered for tenure.
Read more: Community Mental Health
From Stoopball to Surgeon General Report
Caswell Evans, DDS’70, decided to become a dentist after an accident playing stoopball in his Harlem neighborhood led him to spend several days at the orthodontist. Though he initially wanted to open a practice in Harlem, he became convinced during dental school that preventing dental disease was just as important as treating it.
In 2000, Evans produced the first Surgeon General’s report on oral health, which emphasized the importance of oral health to overall health. Although oral health has improved in the United States since the report, it is still true today that “not all Americans have achieved the same level of oral health and well-being” that the 2000 report described.
“That broad sections of the population have not received many of the benefits of greatly improved oral health care should be a concern to all practitioners,” Evans told Inside Dentistry in 2012.
Until recently, VP&S recorded Travis Johnson, MD’1908, as the school’s first African-American graduate. But research has shown that four others—John Brown, Washington Walter Davis, David Kearney McDonogh, and James Parker Barnett—attended between 1830 and 1850, establishing VP&S as one of the first medical schools in America to offer courses of study in medicine to men of African heritage.
They were not officially recognized as medical students, however, and were not granted MD degrees during their lifetimes. One of the students, John Brown, began a short-lived medical practice and was arguably the first professionally trained African-American physician in New York City, a credit usually given to Dr. James McCune Smith. McDonogh practiced medicine for decades in New York City; Davis returned to Liberia, where he was born, to establish a practice, and Barnett finished his medical studies at Dartmouth, which awarded him an MD in 1854.
Black Men in White Coats
When Olawale Amubieya, MD’14, chose the role of doctor in a childhood pageant at his church, parishioners started calling him “Doctor.” It planted a seed, and Amubieya is now a fellow in pulmonary and critical care medicine at UCLA.
“I feel like there are so few African-American males in medicine because we just don’t see ourselves. If you don’t see your dream, it’s hard to imagine it,” Amubieya says in a video for the Black Men in White Coats project.
“For a young person of color thinking of medicine, who has no resources, there are people all over the country just like me who are itching to help you,” Amubieya adds. “Search online, got to your local hospital, ask if there is anyone you can shadow. And you’ll find us.”