Though opportunities for black women in medicine were scarce when Barbara Ross-Lee started medical school nearly 40 years ago, she blazed a trail in osteopathic medicine and became a role model to a generation of Black female physicians.
Looking back, Ross-Lee recalls being interested in medicine as a student in 1950s Detroit. Options were limited for a young Black woman at that time, and she encountered more opposition and negativity than support as she pursued higher education and a career in the medical field. There were guidance counselors who suggested she become a teacher rather than a doctor, for example, and supervisors who assumed she would fail.
Rather than allowing antagonism to impede her success, however, Ross-Lee says those “many negative role models created a positive impact” as she learned “to set my own standard of excellence since their expectation of what I was capable of as a Black female was so low.”
The Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine Class of 2019 earned the highest score in the United States on a national board exam for future osteopathic doctors.
Then and now
That self-reliance and internal motivation served her well throughout her career as she pursued new challenges and positions not generally perceived as available to women of color.
“At the time, issues of gender and race didn’t enter my mind, because I was focused on whether I was qualified for the responsibilities and whether my credentials were strong enough to compete,” she said.
Since receiving her D.O. degree in 1973, however, Ross-Lee says opportunities have evolved and the field has changed both quantitatively and qualitatively in terms of numbers of schools and students, as well as the continuum of education that includes residency training.
In addition, she says osteopathic medicine’s “roots in rural and urban underserved populations have made the profession more familiar to underrepresented minority communities.”
As a result, there is hope that recruiting minorities — a challenge across all areas of medicine — will become more urgent.
“The opportunities are excellent, the education is superior, and minorities should pursue osteopathic medicine if they are interested in the field of medicine,” she said.