One hundred and fifty-seven years ago, a Black woman graduated from the New England Female Medical College, which later merged with Boston University and formed the core of BU School of Medicine.
Her name was Rebecca Davis Lee (later Crumpler), and when she enrolled in 1860, there were 54,543 physicians in the US. Only about 300 were woman; none of the women was Black. Crumpler established a practice in Boston, and later published A Book of Medical Discourses, likely the first medical text ever written by an African American.
Dr. Crumpler’s example was at the heart of a week-long series of events hosted by BUSM February 8–12. The symposia, “The Legacy of Rebecca Lee Crumpler: What is Possible?,” featured 15 hosts and panelists, all Black women, and drew nearly 400 viewers for a wide-ranging conversation.
At the first event, held on the 190th anniversary of Dr. Crumpler’s birth, BUSM Dean Karen H. Antman, MD, introduced Joan Y. Reede, MD, MPH, MS, MBA, Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Society, Human Development, and Health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Dr. Reede spoke of “The Power of Firsts,” focusing on pioneers battling the odds. She cited the sometimes dangerous environments within which Dr. Crumpler and other minorities blazed trails. She cited setbacks, but also told how individuals and groups kept racial progress moving forward.
Diversity is important, she said, because it helps society realize its values, address complex issues, and ensure its long-term viability: “We need to ask questions like, Who has a seat at the table? Whose voices are being heard?”
“We are making progress,” Dr. Reede said. “But we all need to speak up. We all need to be part of the change.”
Tuesday’s panel brought together a powerhouse group of Black women in medicine. The session was moderated by Kaye-Alese Green, a third-year BUSM medical student and the inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Fellow, and featured Marcelle Willock, MD (Questrom’89), BUSM Professor Emerita of Anesthesiology and Former Chair of Anesthesiology; Deborah Deas, MD, MPH, Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences, Mark and Pam Rubin Dean of the School of Medicine, and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, Riverside; Deborah Prothrow-Stith, MD, Dean and Professor of Medicine at Charles R. Drew University College of Medicine and Science; Alicia Monroe, MD, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic and Faculty Affairs and Professor of Family Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine; and Loretta Jackson-Williams, MD, PhD (BUSM’94), Professor of Emergency Medicine and Vice Dean of Medical Education at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine.
Ms. Green first asked the panelists to talk about their paths into medicine. Drs. Willock and Deas recalled that there were few local role models for them to emulate. Dr. Prothrow-Stith remembered growing up in Atlanta, where a thriving Black community encouraged her. Dr. Monroe described how family tragedy and loss following disease motivated her.
Ms. Green asked: “Where are we going next?” Dr. Monroe spoke of the importance of making medical school stronger to improve our communities. “Medical students, and doctors, have influence,” she said, suggesting that medical school communities take an active role in promoting vaccine use.
Later, the panelists reflected on connections between Dr. Crumpler’s experience and their own. They emphasized the importance of striving for excellence, even in face of barriers. “Be the best!” Dr. Willock said. “It will be recognized. Don’t let anybody stop you from doing good.” Dr. Deas added that she was just one of only two Black students in her medical school class of 165. She knew she had to find allies, and she did.
“Don’t be afraid to be the first! Be a trailblazer,” Dr. Monroe said. “Get help, and don’t give up!”
On Wednesday, the next generation took center stage. BUSM’s Samantha Kaplan, MD, MPH, Assistant Dean for Diversity & Inclusion and Assistant Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology, welcomed a group of early- to mid-career professionals: Ebonie Woolcock, MD, MPH (BUSM 2010), BUSM’s Assistant Dean for Diversity & Inclusion and Assistant Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology; Toya Kelley, MD (BUSM 2007), Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Public Health Service and Senior Clinical Education Consultant in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Health Service Corps; Simone Ellis, MS, MD (BUSM 2015), a Family Medicine Physician at Whitman Walker Health in Washington, DC; and Dallas Reed, MD (BUSM 2010), Division Chief of Genetics and Director of Perinatal Genetics at Tufts Medical Center and Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.
Dr. Woolcock, a Boston native, grew up without seeing many Black doctors, and credited “pivotal little times of exposure” for helping her stay committed to a career in medicine. In an early post at a hospital, Dr. Woolcock noted that generally, physicians didn’t wear their white coats outside of work. “Once I became a physician,” she said, “it was very important for me to be as visible as possible. I was a young Black woman working in a Black community, so I wore my white coat everywhere.”
Growing up in Atlanta, Dr. Kelley was surrounded by Black role models. But in many other places, she is conscious of how she stands out—and of her power to inspire. “I realize that I turn heads, just by walking in uniform,” she said. “Just by waking up, I’ve put on that hat of role model.”
Dr. Ellis recalled observing unequal treatment provided to her own family as a young child, which spurred her interest in healthcare. Today, she said, “being Black has its challenges, but I love when I walk in a room, and a patient sees me with my natural hair. That makes their eyes light up. It makes them that much more engaged. I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
Dr. Reed, who went into genetics after losing an infant brother to a genetic condition, spoke about recognizing one’s own distinctiveness. Dr. Reed is not only Black, but one of only a few dozen OB/GYN geneticists in the world. “That’s how I think about my role. I’m one of the very few,” she said.
All emphasized the importance of confidence. “Learn the art of self-promotion early on,” Dr. Kelley said. “Comparison is a spirit-killer.”
Even while celebrating individual agency, all pointed to the importance of finding communities. For some, this meant turning down “name-brand” schools like Harvard to attend Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCUs). And each advocated making time for family and friends—and for themselves. Dr. Willcock, an avid basketball and tennis fan, turns off her phone make time to watch the sports she loves: “I love Serena Williams, so Serena is in my schedule.”
Later that day, Dr. Woolcock, who also is interim director and an alum of the Early Medical School Selection Program (EMSSP), the diversity pipeline program into BUSM, led a special networking and mentorship session with current students and alumni of color who are part of the EMSSP program.
On the final day, a group of experts discussed the effect of the pandemic on the Black community in a conversation moderated by Rev. Liz Walker, Pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and a journalist who was Boston’s first Black weeknight news anchor. Joining Rev. Walker were Cassandra Pierre MD, MPH (SPH’13), MSc, BUSM Assistant Professor of Medicine and Medical Director of Public Health Programs and Associate Hospital Epidemiologist at BMC; Judith Absalon, MD, MPH, Senior Medical Director of Pfizer Vaccines Research & Development; Congresswoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; and Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health. Patricia Williams, MD (CAS’84, BUSM’89), played a lead role in organizing the panel and recruiting the speakers.
Dr. Pierre provided an overview of the effect of the pandemic on people of color, notably Black Americans, who have been sickened, hospitalized, and died more than other groups. She explained the causes, including systemic racism and the ways it has forced many Black Americans into lower-paying “essential” jobs and more crowded households, and diminished access to healthy foods, environments, and education.
Dr. Absalon described vaccine creation and explained how Pfizer’s messenger-RNA vaccine and others work. She addressed the ongoing challenge of vaccine mistrust and misinformation, and offered abundant evidence to support the vaccines’ safety and efficacy. “While vaccine development for COVID was accelerated,” she emphasized, “there were no shortcuts.”
Dr. Alexander-Scott, the first Black director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, described her state’s Health Equity Zones, which have fostered systemic change—including decreased teenage pregnancies and student absenteeism. The Zones encourage people at the community level to take agency. “Oftentimes people push back, saying ‘We are the voice, this is what we know is needed,’” she said. “That’s what we want.”
How to convince people to get a vaccine? Congresswoman Beatty tackled the issue head-on. “I was one of those folks that questioned whether this would be safe for me,” she said. “I can remember the Tuskegee experiment, I can remember Henrietta Lacks. But when I saw people like [Dr. Absalon] coming forward, and giving charts and information, you know what it did? Trust. When you have trust, you get comfort. When you get comfort and trust, you get action.”
“We need to build on history,” Congresswoman Beatty concluded. “I look forward to my grandchildren living in a better world. And I have to hope that we will have more physicians in honor of Rebecca Crumpler.”
Written by Julia Serazio and Jeffrey Cruikshank.