Adding Seats to the Table: Admission of Women Medical Students to the Civil Rights Movement

During this time, Harvard Medical School (HMS) continued to admit very few African American students. During some years, no students of color entered or graduated HMS, while in 1927, three African American students graduated. That record was not met again until 1973. 

In 1917, Linda James graduated from the Harvard-MIT School for Health Officers (now the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). She was the first woman to graduate from Harvard University. Harvard Medical School did not admit women medical students until 1945.

The first coeducational class, which included twelve women students, graduated in 1949. The exhibit A Brief History of Women at Harvard Medical School explores this history.

This time period also saw protests against laws and policies supporting segregation and racism in medical facilities. As the American Civil Rights Movement came to a head in the 1960s, doctors played a role in advocating for equal treatment in hospitals and increasing numbers of African American students in medical schools. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 was the catalyst for HMS faculty to take action to increase admission of minority students.

Key Events

Harvard Medical School faculty voted to recommend admitting women students in 1943 because the World War II draft depleted applications from qualified male students. The Harvard Corporation voted against the recommendation. 

In 1944, 153 women applied as students to Harvard Medical School, and as a result, the faculty again recommended to admit women students. On June 4, 1944, the Harvard Corporation voted to accept women in the 1945 medical school freshman class.

Eighty-eight women applied to the Harvard Medical Class of 1949. Twelve women were accepted and matriculated in the Class of 1949.Women students were initially accepted on a ten-year trial basis. Gender parity was reached among incoming Harvard Medical School classes in 1994.

Grete Bibring, MD, was appointed to full professor at Harvard Medical School as clinical professor of psychiatry. She had also been the first woman appointed head of a clinical department in 1946.

To learn more about Dr. Bibring, visit: https://collections.countway.harvard.edu/onview/exhibits/show/grete-bibring-the-modern-woman

On June 24, 1964, Dr. Tom Levin held a meeting of doctors at his home in New York City. The twelve doctors agreed to go to Mississippi to provide medical support for the thousand Freedom Summer volunteers who worked in Mississippi to register Black people to vote amidst racism and violence from local people who had disenfranchised Black voters.  Additionally, volunteers set up community resources to aid the local Black population, including health centers, community centers, and schools. Adopting the name the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), the committee sent out a call for additional support. Roughly 100 medical volunteers ultimately supported Freedom Summer volunteers, and the goals of the MCHR were to administer first aid to civil rights workers and local Black people, help people get access to doctors and hospitals, and to help healthcare personnel working in the state.

MCHR coordinated fund-raising and recruitment for medical professionals in Mississippi, and by mid-July ran six health centers in Mississippi. Although Dr. Archie Gray, head of the Mississippi Department of Health, would not license any MCHR member to practice medicine in Mississippi, any citizen was allowed to give emergency first aid in Mississippi. Using this loophole, MCHR volunteers provided aid to Freedom Summer volunteers, conducted health-education classes, and aided impoverished Black communities, while under constant threat of violence, ambush, and arrest. After Freedom Summer, some volunteers left Mississippi while other remained to establish community health centers.

Harvard Medical School faculty involved with MCHR included Paul Dudley White and Alvin Poussaint.

To learn more about the Medical Committee for Human Rights, see John Dittmer’s The Good Doctors, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Legacy Project: https://snccdigital.org/inside-sncc/alliances-relationships/mchr/, and the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website: https://www.crmvet.org/. 

As the American Civil Rights Movement came to a head in the 1960s, doctors played a role in advocating for equal treatment in hospitals and increasing numbers of African American students in medical schools. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 was the catalyst for HMS faculty to take action to increase admission of minority students.

Key People

Professor of Medicine
Dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 1972-1984

Howard H. Hiatt MD was born in Patchogue, New York. He enrolled in Harvard College in 1944, and ascended to Harvard Medical School (graduating in 1948) without first earning his A.B. degree.

Dr. Hiatt was the first Blumgart Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the physician-in-chief at Beth Israel Hospital from 1963 to 1972. In 1972, he became the dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a role he held until 1984.

In 1985, he resumed teaching at Harvard Medical School and as Senior Physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Partners in Health, and a member emeritus of the Task Force for Global Health. He is a leader in the field of human rights.

”…… when we started the program at Beth Israel Hospital -- the training program -- there were no women in the residency -- or almost none. We started something in that realm. There were no minorities in the residency -- we addressed that problem too. And, that, you know, was an opportunity I had to address issues that I thought needed attention.”

“Because the war was on and it was really not possible to continue without abbreviating considerably my college experience, I left without a Harvard degree, that is, a bachelor’s degree.”

”And then I had a call from the new president of Yale. He said that he had heard about my interests. He said he thought they coincided with his, and would I come to New Haven and look at that position? I did, and it looked just right. He was all for bringing the medical school and the university together in closer relationship and for bringing the medical school into closer relationship with its community”

First African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School
Graduated Harvard Medical Class of 1951

Mildred Fay Jefferson was born on April 4, 1926, in Pittsburg, Texas. She earned her bachelor's degree from Texas College at age 16, and earned her master's degree from Tufts University in 1947. 

She entered HMS as a member of the class of 1951. She was the first woman to complete a surgical internship at Boston City Hospital, and after graduating from Harvard Medical School, was the first woman doctor at Boston University Medical Center, eventually becoming Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery, and the first woman member of the Boston Surgical Society.

Dr. Jefferson spent much of her career as an advocate for pro-life causes. She was a founder of the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, a member of the National Right to Life Committee's board of directors, and the Founding President of the Right to Life Crusade, Inc. She died in 2010. 

The Schlessinger Library holds the Papers of Mildred Jefferson; the finding aid is available here: https://hollisarchives.lib.harvard.edu/repositories/8/resources/7664.

Graduated Harvard Medical School Class of 1951

Harold May was born in Peekskill, New York in 1926. He entered Harvard College in 1944 as part of the accelerated program during World War II and entered the Air Corps in 1945, becoming part of the Tuskegee Airmen program. After the war, Dr. May returned to Harvard, and entered Harvard Medical School in 1947.

After medical school, Dr. May completed a surgical residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, which was interrupted by eye surgery. During his convalesence, he traveled to Haiti, and after his residency, returned to Haiti where he worked at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital.  He also served as Director of Community Health at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Medical Director of the Wrentham Developmental Center, and as Founder of FAMILY, Inc.  a non-profit which creates secure and nurturing environments of mutual supports in which all children and families can thrive.

Interview Transcript | Part 1 of 2 (pdf)

Interview Transcript | Part 2 of 2 (pdf)

"And so all of these factors just entered into who I am and who I have been in my life ever since."

"But December 7th, 1941 was a turning point for my life and the life of every boy in our nation because we knew that we were going to be at war."

"We were going to Tuskegee because of segregation, overt segregation."

"I went to Dr. Churchill and said, 'Dr. Churchill, I want to give my resignation because I’m going to have to leave the residency because I can’t see.'"

"And I couldn’t shake that image that what Haiti needs, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, what Haiti needs is Tuskegee. It needs development. And so education is critical."

"And I wondered what is my role here. Here I am. I knew I needed to be in Haiti. And I was expecting to be there for the rest of my life. I was fully expecting that. But in the back of my mind I had this nagging concern, how about our own -- how about the United States."

"So it seems that I would be a strange person to pick to take leadership of the division of community health or -- they called it community medicine. Me, with my experience in Haiti, just this beautiful but very very poor country which is rural. And here I was in urban America. But that’s what the challenge was."

"I love America. I love America and I praise God that I was born here. That’s a blessing. But I think the light has to start shining here. There has to be a light. There has to be a beacon that says, 'Look, this is the way.' And this is the way, the fact is we’re one family."

Photographs courtesy of Harold May.

Artist: Stephen Coit. All rights reserved.

Graduated Harvard College 1948, Graduated Harvard Medical School Class of 1952

Chester Middlebrook Pierce (1927-2016), Harvard College Class of 1948, Harvard Medical School Class of 1952, was emeritus professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and emeritus professor of education at the Harvard School of Education. He was the first African American full professor at Massachusetts General Hospital, and practiced in the Department of Psychiatry for over 25 years. Dr. Pierce was also the Past President of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Orthopsychiatric Association, and was the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America. In 1970, Dr. Pierce was the first to use the term “microaggression” to describe insults and dismissals he regularly witnessed non-Black Americans inflict on African Americans. Dr. Pierce was also a consultant for Sesame Street.

Interview Transcript (pdf)

“Well, it was a time of, you know, a lot of social ferment around issues of race.  And people were organizing and talking in all sorts of ways.  And so it was not unusual for a group to get together, like… black psychiatrists.”

“Lots of places I know wouldn’t have given me the latitude to pursue things I wanted to pursue, and did, such as, you know, spending lots of time in Antarctica… But Harvard is indulgent.”

Graduated Harvard Medical School, Master's Degree 1947, PhD 1952

Born on 7 September 1918, in Pennsauken, New Jersey, Dr. Amos completed his undergraduate studies at Springfield College, Springfield, Massachusetts, graduating summa cum laude in 1941 with a major in Biology and minor in Chemistry. Dr. Amos was a graduate assistant in the Biology Department, Springfield College, until he was drafted into the Quartermaster Corps of the United States Army (1942). He served during World War II as a warrant officer in a battalion that supplied gasoline to troops; he spent two years in England before serving in France and former Czechoslovakia until his discharge (1946). Dr. Amos enrolled in the Biological Sciences’ graduate program in the Division of Medical Sciences, Harvard Medical School, in 1946, and completed his Master’s degree in 1947. In 1952, Harold Amos was the first African American doctoral graduate of the Division of Medical Sciences at Harvard Medical School.

He went on to become the first African American Department Chair at Harvard Medical School, serving as the Chair, Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, from 1968-1971 and again from 1975-1978. His research focused on nutrition and animal cells, including the use of bacterial RNA to program higher cell protein synthesis, enzyme inductions, insulin, serum, temperature effects, ribosomes, phosphoproteins, RNA metabolism, as well as glucose starvation and glycerol and hexose metabolism.

The Minority Medical Faculty Development Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is named for Harold Amos, who worked tirelessly to recruit and mentor minority and disadvantaged students to careers in academic medicine and science. Dr. Amos was a founding member of the National Advisory Committee of the Minority Medical Faculty Development Program and served as the National Program Director from 1989 to 1993. He died in February 2003.

The Center for the History of Medicine holds the Harold Amos Papers; the finding aid is available here: https://hollisarchives.lib.harvard.edu/repositories/14/resources/6650. More about Dr. Amos’ career is available here: https://cms.www.countway.harvard.edu/wp/?p=12742.

Graduated Harvard Medical School Class of 1954

John C. Norman, MD (1930-2014) was born on May 11, 1930 in Charleston, West Virginia. He entered Howard University at age 16 and transferred to Harvard College, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1950. He completed his medical degree in 1954. Following an internship and residency at Presbyterian Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital in New York, he joined the U.S. Navy, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander. He completed his cardiac surgical training at the University of Michigan and in 1962 was a National Institutes of Health fellow at the University of Birmingham, England.

Dr. Norman became an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, and undertook research projects involving organ transplantation. This work led him to the Texas Heart Institute in 1972, where he worked on developing the first abdominal left ventricular assist device. He later worked at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in New Jersey, and then as chairman of the surgery department at Marshall University School of Medicine. 

Dr. Norman also organized the 1969 "Medicine in the Ghetto" in the New England Journal of Medicine that same year.

His papers are available through the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Dr. Norman's full oral history is available to researchers at the Center for the History of Medicine. Contact chm@hms.harvard.edu for more information.

"Being a student, I always said, regardless of where you are, or from whom you are, you could come to Harvard College or Harvard Medical School for that matter, and find someone of similar background, and form a solidarity, and that your standards would be raised forever, as they are today." 

Photos courtesy of Dr. Alvin Crawford.

Alvin Crawford, MD, FACS, graduated cum laude from Tennesse State University in 1960, earning degrees in Chemistry and Music. In 1964, he became the first African American to graduate from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine.

Dr. Crawford completed his residency at the U.S. Naval Hospital Chelsea (Boston), and Combined Harvard Orthopaedic Residency Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Crawford became the Director of Orthopaedic Surgery at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in 1977 and remained chief for 29 years. He is one of the nation's foremost authorities on video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery, and among his achievements was serving as the first African American president of the Scoliosis Society.

Interview Transcript (pdf)

“Well, you know, we think that you’ve got all it takes for the military, but I think that you could be better served, and we would like to have you trained at Harvard.”

“But more important are what I consider, and I call euphemistically, my children. I had 57 fellows that I’ve trained, pretty much from all over the world. And a lot of them from under-developed, under-served countries, and I’ve not only trained them, they -- some have gone back from the States, and have done mission surgery in a lot of those places where they’ve been.”