African-American contributions to medicine -- part 3 of 7

Material gathered by Walter Brooks, UNMC public affairs | February 22, 2002

In honor of Black History Month, UNMC Today is highlighting the contributions of African-Americans in medicine. The seven-part series continues today with Yvonne Thornton, M.D., one of the leading women in maternal-fetal medicine.

Yvonne Thornton, M.D. -- OB-GYN extraordinaire and Pulitzer Prize-nominee

In 1981, Dr. Yvonne Thornton became the first black woman board certified in special competency in maternal-fetal medicine. Today she is senior perinatologist at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York. Her road to success was far from easy. The challenges surrounding the Thornton sisters' struggle to obtain higher education were detailed in her Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, The Ditchdigger's Daughters: A Black Family's Astounding Success Story, which was later made into a movie. The musical sisters, known as the Thornton Sisters, paid for their schooling by performing at colleges on weekends for 13 years. Despite a grueling work schedule, they were expected to excel in their studies.

Dr. Thornton, who has delivered more than 5,000 babies and is board certified in obstetrics, gynecology and maternal-fetal medicine, still experiences gender and racial bias. "Sometimes, when people see me in my white coats, they think I'm a housekeeper," she said. "My skin color speaks louder than the name tags I wear."

When a pregnancy has a severe complication and is beyond the expertise of the patient's regular obstetrician, Dr. Thornton comes to the rescue. "When I enter the room, the husband looks at me (with uncertainty, because he initially assumes I don't have the qualifications). But once the patient is out of trouble, 100 percent of the time the husband says, 'Thank you, Dr. Thornton.' You have to change people one at a time. That gentleman will think twice now before assuming when he sees a person of color." (Taken from the August 2001 Black Enterprise magazine: "America's Leading Black Physicians.")