Trailblazing Physician Discusses Rise To The Top

Dr. Yvonne Thornton's new memoir, "Something to Prove: A Daughter's Journey to Fulfill a Father's Legacy," continues the story of battling racism and sexism at the start of her career at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. She is the first African-American woman to become a double Board Certified specialist in obstetrics, gynecology and maternal-fetal medicine. Host Michel Martin speaks with Dr. Thornton about her career.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we continue our celebration of Black History Month with an essay from one of TELL ME MORE's own.

But, first, our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk to someone who's made a difference through his or her work. Today, we visit with a ditchdigger's daughter - her words - who's gone on to become an author, a physician and a pioneer in her specialty: author and physician Yvonne Thornton.

Her father worked as a laborer his entire life, facing the ridicule of coworkers for having six daughters and no sons. And yet he and his wife taught those daughters to stand up against putdowns aimed at them because of their race and gender. He hoped they'd all become doctors. And lo and behold, three of them did just that and the other three did just fine too.

Dr. Yvonne Thornton wrote about all this in her bestselling 1995 memoir titled "The Ditchdigger's Daughters: A Black Family's Astonishing Success Story." And now she's written a follow-up just out called "Something to Prove: A Daughter's Journey to Fulfill a Father's Legacy." And Dr. Thornton joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. YVONNE THORNTON (Author, "Something to Prove: A Daughter's Journey to Fulfill a Father's Legacy"): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Your father seemed to have a very kind of well-considered, very articulated philosophy of life, articulated in his own fashion. Where did he get it?

Dr. THORNTON: I think the reason why he had this vision is because he had five girls and no sons. My other uncles and aunts had sons to quote, unquote, "carry on the name" and they were juniors. But my father had all girls and I think he had to kind of rethink his position in that family and became very defensive.

MARTIN: And I want to say there were five girls by birth and then he, you -your family later adopted a sixth girl.

Dr. THORNTON: Yes.

MARTIN: A sixth girl. One of the funny things in your first book, you say at one point that you're not sure you had original thought your whole life because you were so used to quoting his aphorisms. Would you give us just a couple of them?

Dr. THORNTON: Never let anyone define who you are. And he would say, if the front door is closed to you, go around to the back. If the back door is closed, jump up on the chimney - just never, never give up. And think five years ahead of time. You know, certain things such as that to keep us going.

MARTIN: What do you think it is about your family's story that just engages people so much?

Dr. THORNTON: I think it resonates to those who have children who are parents, actually, to see that in this country, what you can do, if you're the lowest man on the totem pole and with hope and wisdom, faith and focus, how far you can really rise. No guarantees, but opportunities. And that's why I wrote the first book because my mom - it was a dream of my mother who said it would be nice to have a book in the library just to show people that your little nappy-headed kids from the projects - how you could advance and become educated and to rise to the levels that you are now.

MARTIN: Well, let me just say that your bluntness there in that sentence is throughout your story. And I will just read the opening lines of the first book, the beginning: You kids are black, Daddy sometimes said to us. You're dark-skinned and ugly. Daddy, don't you love us, we wailed? I love you. I love you better than I love life, he assured us. But I'm not always going to be around to look after you. And no man's going to come along and offer to take care of you because you ain't light-skinned. That's why you got to be able to look after yourselves. And for that, you got to be smart.

So, Daddy didn't pull any punches, did he?

Dr. THORNTON: No he didn't. And thank goodness that he did, because situations do present themselves when you think about your father already told you that this was going to happen and you're prepared.

MARTIN: But his sort of generosity, his spirit didn't just extend to the children that were his by birth. I do want to ask you to tell us the story of Betty, who is one of the sisters who was adopted, if you don't mind sharing that. Because this was kind of - the Times described him as a feminist ahead of his time. The way he treated Betty was an example of his thinking about women and what they were capable of. Can you tell that story?

Dr. THORNTON: Well, my father looked at women and everybody as to be equal and to be fair. Now, my foster sister, Betty, she was a foster child of my grandmother, but she was not well-treated in my grandmother's house. She was actually treated as more so than a servant. And when my grandmother passed away, she was about 14 or 15 at that time, my father's brothers and sisters said, OK, Betty will just stay with us and continue her ways of scrubbing and being a maid.

And my father said, oh, no, no, no, no. Betty, what do you want to do? And no one had ever asked Betty for her opinion on anything. And she said I want to go with Donald, who is my dad. And she was like her sister anyway, so she came to live with us and that's how it was. He was a very, very fair man and he knew what was right and he fought for what was right.

MARTIN: I want to just read another couple of lines from the book. The first book where your dad is explaining to the five girls he already has, and the social worker, who said to him why do you - you already have five girls, why do you want to bring in another daughter? And he says look, I want to put Betty back in school, plus I told her that Betty only had a certain length of time before she would be ready to be a wife and she hadn't ought to be going into marriage thinking nobody loves me, they can do this to me, they can do that to me and I got no right to stick up for myself. Those thoughts hadn't ought to be there, and if that was God's will I wasn't going to let them be there.

Showing that he had this philosophy that, you know, women ought to be able to stand up for themselves, think their own thoughts...

Dr. THORNTON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...as long as they were kind of doing what he wanted, which leads me to the band. One of the other things that's funny about your story is that you and your sisters had one of the most popular college bands on the East Coast.

Dr. THORNTON: Yes. Well, started with just a request from my older sister, Donna. She found a little red saxophone in a box of Cracker Jack. And she said daddy, can have a real one? Anything that we wanted in our lives, he found a way to get it for us. And he had a good friend from the Navy that had a saxophone and he said OK, can I just borrow this for my daughter? And you know how kids are, he was telling this to his friend, she'll soon become very tired of it and I can give it back to you in a month.

But to my sister's credit, she played that saxophone. She ate with that saxophone. She slept with that saxophone. She went to school with that saxophone, all without lessons it sounded horrible. So my parents said well, she needed to have some lessons. And my second oldest sister, Jeanette, said well, if she could play saxophone I can play something, so she started playing on the guitar.

The rest of us got kind of jealous because Mommy sat with each of us at their lessons. So by the time, I think, three or four years went by there was Donna on tenor sax, I was on alto, my sisters on guitar. And one of the music teachers said, you know, it would be nice if you had some rhythm, like some drums. And my dad said well, give them to Linda; she likes to beat up on things. So my second youngest sister, Linda, became the drummer. And we were known as The Thornettes, then became the Thornton Sisters, and my mom started with the band as the bass player.

MARTIN: And she also did all of your costumes.

Dr. THORNTON: All of our costumes. She was the wardrobe mistress. Yes.

MARTIN: She was beyond his mom, you know - Beyonce's mom before there was Beyonce's mom.

Dr. THORNTON: Exactly.

MARTIN: That's right.

Dr. THORNTON: And she also encouraged us to say this is just part and parcel of a springboard for you to get educated. And my kid sister, Rita, came in, Daddy forget about this doctor dream, we're stars. You know, we want to be, you know, we want have autographs. He goes, no, no, girls. You know, you're 15 and 16 years of age, people love you, you've got great figures, but when you're 50, 60 years of age you have to look down that road and nobody wants to be paying for an old wrinkled 50-year-old, 60-year-old lady, gray hair, arthritis, trying to blow a saxophone. It's not a pretty sight to see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. THORNTON: But if you have them scripper(ph) and scraps hanging around your neck and you're Dr. Thornton, yes, people will come to see you.

MARTIN: What is a scripper scrap?

Dr. THORNTON: He couldn't pronounce stethoscope. I don't know why he couldn't pronounce stethoscope, but it was a family running joke that he would always face scripper scrap. Where is the scripper scrap? See that guy, he's got scripper scraps hanging around his neck. That's what I want for you and your sisters. That meant you're a doctor. No matter what socio-economic status that the patient was, if you were skilled he would come and say please Dr. Thornton, please help me, whereas, if you were a maid, if you were a janitor, he wouldn't give you the time of day.

He saw doctors be accorded the respect that he never had as a janitor, working in the slaughter houses as a labor. As my mom even, she worked in the sweat houses, sweatshops outside of New York. They were invisible people and he wanted his daughters to have respect. And the only thing that he could think of was medicine. And I appreciate that, because I told my two children when they were four or five years of age, I said you can be anything that you want, a radiologist, cardiologist, OB/GYN, as long as there's an M.D. behind that name.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. THORNTON: And I because I think medicine is a very noble profession. And my son listened to me. He went straight through Harvard. He's now studying to be a neurosurgeon. He too went to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. My daughter went to Stanford as a premed, but she got her degree in studio art. Well, actually, when that first and second rent payment came and she couldn't make it she came back to New York and she applied and was admitted to Columbia School of Public Health and got her masters degree in socio-medical sciences. So now my daughter is a first year medical school - a medical student.

Oh yeah, first year medical student.

MARTIN: So there. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with Dr. Yvonne Thornton. Her new memoir is a sequel to "The Ditchdigger's Daughters," and that is the story of how her parents molded and directed their six girls to become doctors. Three of them became doctors. The other three did just fine too, one becoming a nurse, one becoming a science teacher and one becoming a lawyer. The new memoir is called "Something to Prove: A Daughter's Journey to Fulfill a Father's Legacy."

So let's talk about that now. You know, you told us the story about just, first of all, how hard it was to get the first memoir published.

Dr. THORNTON: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So why did you come back for seconds?

Dr. THORNTON: I was going to be the one-time author, like Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell, you know, just one book. And then I had my children and many people would say oh, Dr. Thornton, you've got to tell us how you raised your kids. And then I started to think a while, about writing another book about a roadmap to women who want to balance their lives; they want to realize their dream, being a physician and being a mom, and not giving up either of them. And that's what the new book is all about.

MARTIN: One of the things about both of these books that I think people will find interesting, is that you describe some truly demeaning behavior that was directed toward, first your father and then you as a professional. Just going back to medical school where you had a professor who was very openly - and this is at Columbia, by the way which is in New York, which many people assume is a very sophisticated and diverse place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: A professor who openly stated he did not believe women belonged there...

Dr. THORNTON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...because they would just get pregnant and get married and they were taking a seat that belonged to a man. You described a female professor who openly told you to your face that she did not believe that you had done your own work when you aced a difficult exam and made you take it again...

Dr. THORNTON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...in her presence where you aced it again. And then you go on to describe when you become a doctor, these incidents directed at you, and I'm just interested in whether you were really as - you describe these as great equanimity.

Dr. THORNTON: OK.

MARTIN: And I'm wondering was it really like that for you?

Dr. THORNTON: Yes.

MARTIN: Were you really you're emotionally as steady through all that as you describe?

Dr. THORNTON: Yes. Well, yes.

MARTIN: You were just like whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. THORNTON: That's right. Whatever. They can and my dad would say they can believe whatever they want to believe. They had their own agenda. You can't get upset, because that's just the way it is. Now, it's hard, when you are a woman of color, to keep believing that's just the way it is, but it is. I mean you come into a room and people look at you with that furrowed brow and say like what is she doing here, you know. And you have to kind of prove that you belong there. And all my life - I mean it starts when I was a teenager, to even the present day -as being a double boarded maternal fetal medicine specialist, that every time I come into the room there may be that what is she doing here? Where is the real doctor?

MARTIN: You also describe how being onstage had helped you react to these curveballs. Like, for example, when you met the chair of your department at Cornell Medical Center, he just ups and asked you if you thought he was a racist. How did the experience of being in a band help you deal with curveballs like that?

Dr. THORNTON: Because you're constantly in the public eye. And my mother, God rest her soul, she would always say smile, people looking at you. And no matter if you're hurting, you're in pain, you're sleepy, you're tired, you would always have to have that smile - people are looking at you. So when curveballs are thrown at me, such as the one that was from the chairman, just out of the blue, do you think I'm a racist, I'm sure another person would say well, why would you ask me that question as if they were upset. My father would always say, never let anybody know that you have buttons to push. So it has to be kind of even tone.

MARTIN: And what did you say? Just tell everybody what you said.

Dr. THORNTON: Well, are you? That's the response. And he just smiled and that was the end of that conversation.

MARTIN: But there was an incident that finally, I don't want to say broke you, but broke you down in a way that you describe. Will you tell that story?

Dr. THORNTON: I had been at Cornell with another perinatologist. We were the only two board-certified maternal fetal medicine specialists when I arrived in 1982. So therefore, when he left it, was my understanding that just like seniority I would be next up to be the director of maternal fetal medicine. But that didn't happen. It was given to a younger colleague who came in later than I did. And...

MARTIN: Who was a white male.

Dr. THORNTON: Who was a white male. At that time it was just such an emotional overload to say I've done everything, I've put up with everything and why is it now that when the time comes to advance, I still have to be under somebody who is younger than I am and has not been in his institution as long as I have. And that's when it broke and I started to really become very emotional.

MARTIN: And you cried.

Dr. THORNTON: Yes.

MARTIN: Well, the sun came up the next day, I take it, so...

Dr. THORNTON: Yes it did.

MARTIN: So how did you get past that?

Dr. THORNTON: What do you do after that? The decision was made it's not in your hand. My father would always say you needed to have ego strength. You needed to have self-respect. And if people didn't respect you, you need to move on. So I sought a position elsewhere and I left Cornell.

MARTIN: What message do you want people to get from your story? And I also want to mention it is Black History Month and so you are, you know, among the pioneers that many people will probably be, you know...

Dr. THORNTON: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: ...just seeking advice from and wisdom from. What's your wisdom?

Dr. THORNTON: Well, the wisdom is never over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. THORNTON: It's never over. When you think it's over it's never over. There's always something there that you have to draw upon your past experiences in order to handle. When my father and mother gave us the wisdom to value education, and they said it was only education that was going to allow us to rise and to stand on equal terms with everyone: white, black, man, woman, rich or poor - and we really climbed that rock wall to the pinnacle we thought as being a physician. And when I hit the pinnacle did I see there was another mountain, and that mountain was sexism within the medical community that I had to address.

So there's always something. There's always something there. And many times even patients will say, as I explain to them the procedure, me being a, you know, a surgeon also, and after I finish they'll say: OK, thank you. Now when is the doctor coming in? It's still just a natural approach that women have not achieved the same sort of credibility as our male counterparts.

MARTIN: Dr. Yvonne Thornton is the nation's first African-American woman to become a double board-certified specialist in obstetrics, gynecology and maternal fetal medicine. Her new memoir, which is a follow-up to the 1995 bestseller "The Ditchdigger's Daughters," is called "Something to Prove: A Daughter's Journey to Fulfill a Father's Legacy."

Dr. Thornton, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. THORNTON: Thank you for having me.

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