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Claudia Thomas Keynote Speaker at Vassar College Baccalaureate Service


SUMMARY: Pioneering orthopaedic surgeon and Vassar alumna, Claudia Thomas, will speak at Baccalaureate Service during Commencement Weekend, May 23, 2009.

PUBLIC CONTACT: Office of Campus Activities, (845) 437-5370

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY – The first African-American female orthopaedic surgeon, Claudia Thomas (Vassar class of 1971), will deliver the keynote address during the 19th annual Baccalaureate Service on Saturday, May 23. The service, sponsored by the Council of Black Seniors at Vassar College, will begin at 4pm, in the College Chapel and is free and open to the public.


Since Dr. Thomas graduated from the Yale Orthopaedic Program in 1980, she has been recognized as a pioneer in creating opportunities for African-American women and men in the medical field. In March 2008, she received the annual Diversity Award from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, who paid tribute to her promotion of racial equality and women’s rights. 


While a student at Vassar, Dr. Thomas was president of the students’ Afro-American Society and participated in the 1969 takeover of Main Building. This event led to the formation of the Africana Studies department, now celebrating its 40th anniversary. Thomas later recounted this experience in her memoir God Spare Life (2007), itself a larger examination of gender, race, class, and faith in the turbulent 1960s. “All facets of American society should represent the gender and ethnicity of its population,” Thomas wrote.


In her memoir Dr. Thomas also recounts the struggle to follow her parents’ strict training in excellence, at a time when, she noted, excellence was not a part of the greater vernacular. In a world bound by prejudice and anger, she said she learned the value of faith – faith in herself, faith in her upbringing, and faith in God. For additional information about God Spare Life and Dr. Thomas, see



Dr. Claudia Thomas, earned her M.D. from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1975 and completed her residency in general and orthopedic surgery at Yale, becoming the first African-American female graduate of the Yale Orthopaedic Program and first female African-American orthopaedic surgeon in the United States. She served as assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Johns Hopkins before moving to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where she worked in a government hospital. In 1992, Thomas returned to Johns Hopkins, as assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.


In addition to the Diversity Award, Thomas is the recipient of the 2008 Spirituality and Medicine Award from Howard University Hospital, the Unsung Hero Award from the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, the Woman of the Year Health Services Award from the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, and the 2003 Women in Medicine Award from the National Medical Association Council on the Concerns of Women Physicians.



Presented by the Council of Black Seniors, the Baccalaureate Service has been part of commencement weekend since 1991. The service celebrates faith and spirituality within the African-American experience, while embracing cultural diversity across the college community. Previous speakers include Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Vashti McKenzie, Rev. James Forbes, Nikki Giovanni, Rev. Michael Eric Dyson, Manning Marable, and Donna Brazile.


Individuals with disabilities requiring accommodations or information on accessibility should contact Campus Activities Office at (845) 437-5370. Without sufficient notice, appropriate space and/or assistance may not be available.


Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.


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