New Haven — As part of its bicentennial celebration, Yale School of Medicine will host a special program to honor its first three African American women graduates on June 2. The event will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Harvey Cushing/Hay Historical Library. The honorees are Beatrix Ann (McCleary) Hamburg, M.D. ’48, Yvette Fay (Francis) McBarnette, M.D. ’50, and Doris Louise Wethers, M.D. ’52.
The celebration will also honor two others who established firsts as African American faculty at the medical school, Claudewell Sydney Thomas, M.D., the first appointed African American full-time faculty member in 1965 and James Pierpont Comer, M.D., the first African American faculty member to attain tenure status and full professor rank.
“We are delighted to celebrate the accomplishments of these extraordinary African Americans who courageously broke the racial barrier at Yale School of Medicine,” said Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern, M.D. “All subsequent students, both minority and non-minority, owe them a debt of gratitude.”
Beatrix “Betty” Hamburg’s achievement in 1948 as Yale’s first African American woman to graduate with a medical degree was not the first path breaking challenge of her career. She was the first self-identified African American to graduate from Vassar College, the last of the historic “Seven Sister” colleges to integrate. Coming to Yale to “seek the best medical education,” she left to embark on a career in child psychiatry that led her to the highest ranks of academic medicine as a clinician, innovative researcher, and educator. She has held professorships at Stanford, Harvard and Mt. Sinai Schools of Medicine and received numerous distinctions and honorary awards. She is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her academic career continues today as the DeWitt Wallace Distinguished Scholar in the Department of Psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Her daughter, Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., is the current F.D.A. Commissioner.
Hamburg’s graduation in 1948 ended a long era of restrictive racial and gender-based admissions practices at Yale School of Medicine. Yale had previously trained African American men in medicine. In 1857, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, M.D., became the first African American medical graduate of Yale. Twelve other men followed over the next four decades. These promising signs of racial progress at Yale ended abruptly at the beginning of the 20th century. In step with social norms and legal strictures that enforced segregation in the society, Yale School of Medicine quietly closed its doors to African Americans for nearly one-half century, leaving no record of African American graduates—male or female—between 1903 and 1947.
Hamburg had an immediate impact on admissions at the medical school. The next two African American graduates were also women, Dr. Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette in 1950 and Dr. Doris Louise Wethers in 1952. Other African Americans continued to graduate through the 1950’s and 1960’s but significant numbers were not achieved until after 1970. There are now more than 400 African American men and women graduates of the medical school.
“Dr. Hamburg prevailed against extremely rigid racial, gender and institutional barriers that once closed doors of opportunity to women and African Americans in medicine,” said Forrester A. “Woody” Lee, M.D., professor of medicine and associate dean of multicultural affairs at Yale School of Medicine. “We are truly honored to celebrate with her and her family the legacy she has created at Yale.”
Francis-McBarnette left Yale in 1950 to train in pediatrics at Michael Reese Hospital before returning to Queens, New York and establishing one of the first comprehensive sickle cell treatment clinics. Wethers, a 1952 graduate, trained in pediatrics in Washington, D.C. and Brooklyn, New York. She became the first African American appointed to head a New York City voluntary hospital department. She also followed a career in sickle disease and headed a comprehensive sickle cell treatment clinical and research center at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. She was a member of the teaching and research faculty at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and published more than 30 scholarly articles on sickle cell disease. Wethers and Francis-McBarnette often worked in partnership to raise research funding and establish clinical care guidelines for sickle cell disease. They were both nationally recognized experts in the disease and helped guide local and national policies for sickle cell screening and treatment.
The three women honorees share much in common. They were each raised in Harlem and attended New York public elementary and secondary schools. Francis and Wethers graduated from New York City public universities, Hunter and Queens Colleges. Each woman entered hospital internship training programs as African American firsts. Their career paths converged on a focus of care for children, especially those underserved and challenged by difficult medical conditions, mental health and sickle cell disease. They each led exceptional professional careers combining clinical care, research, teaching and advocacy.
The celebrations to honor the first women graduates will also recognize the achievements of two African American faculty members. James Pierpont Comer, M.D., MPH, the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, a member of the Yale faculty since 1968, and Claudewell Sidney Thomas, M.D., professor emeritus of child psychiatry at UCLA, who received a full-time faculty appointment at the medical school in 1965.
The event sponsors are the Yale School of Medicine Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Yale Alumni Association, the Yale Minority Organization for Retention and Equity, the Yale African American Affinity Group, the Yale Office for Diversity and Inclusion, and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Theta Epsilon Omega Chapter.