In December 2010, Dr. Forrester Lee of the Yale School of Medicine invited Crystal R. Emery and several doctors to meet Dr. Doris Wethers, who, in 1952, became the third Black woman graduate of that institution. Crystal asked Dr. Wethers why she chose Yale, knowing the university as a “good ol’ boys” citadel. “When you graduate summa cum laude with degrees in biology and chemistry, where else would you go?” Dr. Wethers replied. She simply went where she knew she deserved to go.
Crystal suspected there were many Black women like this; women steadfastly pursuing their dreams despite a society that undervalues and underestimates what Black girls can become when they grow up.
Three weeks later, Crystal and her crew joined Dr. Lee and his colleagues in Washington, D.C., to meet the iconic Dr. Beatrix Hamburg, who, in 1948, became the first African American woman graduate of the Yale School of Medicine. During their meeting, Dr. Hamburg exhibited the same quiet confidence Crystal had observed in Dr. Wethers.
Later that afternoon, Crystal was introduced to cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Jennifer Ellis, one of only five Black women who currently held that title.
They then traveled to Delaware to meet Dr. Velma Scantlebury-White, the nation’s first Black female transplant surgeon. In her, Crystal again sensed the now-familiar confident grace and determined spirit demonstrated by the other women doctors she’d met. Each was unique, but they were connected by a similar thread of determination, resilience and strength – unified in their refusal to allow others to prevent them from achieving their full potential.
As these doctors talked about their lives, Crystal was inspired by how they confronted and overcame adversity. They seldom knew if the obstacles they encountered were influenced by racism, sexism or classism. While striving to finish medical school and residencies, they had little time to consider the nature of the forces trying to keep them down; they just knew they had to rise above the ideas and people threatening their dreams.
Crystal also wondered why no one had thought to learn more about these extraordinary women, and she was struck by inspiration: she had to make a film that told the world their stories. This is how the documentary Black Women in Medicine was conceived.
While the project started out as a film, it ultimately expanded to include a book and a national educational tour. Over the last five years, the Changing the Face of Medicine Initiative and then the Changing the Face of STEM Initiative has evolved from concept to global force of awakening – a multimedia showcase celebrating the triumph of the human spirit that rises above adversity and fights for a more just, healthy world for all.