By Sheryl Nance-Nash
Dr. Yvonne S. Thornton has seen her share of adversity over the course of her three decade career in the medical industry. But she’s always fought back, as evidenced by her awe-inspiring career accomplishments, including becoming the first African-American woman in the U.S. to be board-certified in high-risk obstetrics, and to be accepted into the New York Obstetrical Society. She also rose to the faculty rank of professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology when only 12 percent of female physicians attain this rank. A double-board certified specialist in obstetrics, gynecology and maternal-fetal medicine, Thornton says it was more of her gender, not race, which made her colleagues nervous. “They would rather work with a male of any race, even though [as a woman] you are more qualified.”
There’s no shortage of these stories in her book, Something to Prove: A Daughter’s Journey to Fulfill a Father’s Legacy, which was released in December 2010 and is the follow-up to her bestselling novel and later movie, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters. The Ditchdigger’s Daughters relayed the story of her father who moved his family from the tenements in Harlem to a small house in New Jersey that he built with his own hands from materials bought on a ditchdigger’s salary. His dream was that all his daughters (5 biological and 1 foster) would become respected doctors because he believed having that title would shield them from prejudice. Despite obstacles, four of his five biological daughters became doctors.
We spoke to Thornton about what it took to bring her father’s vision to fruition, her career and her family.
With all your accomplishments, the title of your book is a little puzzling. Do you still feel that you have something to prove?
All my life, I’ve been doing something outside of what a black woman was supposed to be doing. The book is a roadmap to encourage young women to follow their dreams. Women in my age group (60s) chose to have a career or a family, you didn’t do both. [But] I did. The book is about letting women know that they can do what they want.
You began your career as an assistant professor in OB-GYN and clinic director at New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center. What were your early days like?
On my first day at Cornell I walked up to the reception desk in the OB-GYN department and introduced myself to one of the secretaries. I explained [that] I was the new staff doctor in maternal-fetal medicine. [The secretary] did a double-take before she told me to have a seat and wait. Conversations around us stopped. Several people walking by perked up as I announced myself. They weren’t rude, but it was clear I’d caught everyone by surprise. I was the only black person in sight. This was 1982, when a woman obstetrician was still a rarity; a black woman obstetrician was even more unusual. There was no space for me in the department’s office, so I got an office in the dismal sub-basement where the clinic hadn’t been updated since the 1930s. The walls were battleship gray and cold. I had no operating budget and was expected to teach, run the clinic and establish a private practice.