Growing up Black, female and poor—first in Harlem, then in Long Branch, N.J.—in an America that didn’t think little brown girls should or could succeed, Yvonne S. Thornton and her five sisters should have been statistics in the less exalted categories of the socioeconomic record. But neither society nor its dismal predictions figured that the girls’ father, Donald Thornton, would make it his personal mission to raise his daughters to be doctors.
In her loving memoir to her parents, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters (Plume Books, $14), Dr. Yvonne Thornton chronicles her parents’ struggle to raise their daughters to strive for excellence and to settle for nothing less. “When we were in school, my dad said we shouldn’t bring home any curved grades, only those with pointy letters, which meant all As,” she says. At 57, Thornton is the vice-chair of OB/GYN and director of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Jamaica Hospital Center in New York City. “My parents set a high standard for us . . . ,” she says.
Although their own dreams of an education were deferred in their lives, the elder Thorntons poured the hope of achievement into the lives of their children. Thornton says her mother worked as a domestic and her father worked two eight-hour jobs—one of them as a ditchdigger in Fort Monmouth, N.J. He also did odd jobs to earn enough money to give his girls the quality education afforded children in the white Garfield public school district, nearly two miles away from the home he built with his own hands in Long Branch, she says.
She acknowledges that she inherited her father’s tenacity and used his common sense and wisdom to overcome the racism and sexism that tried to hinder her progress. Those hindrances still exist. “As a physician today, oft times my input is viewed with less respect than that of a white man,” explains Thornton, who is a board-certified specialist in obstetrics and gynecology and maternal-fetal medicine. “In fact, I’ve had more difficulty being a woman in this field than being a person of color,” she says of the medical specialty she has wanted to pursue since she was 8 years old.
Helping One Person Become Two
One of her aunts was a nurse at Monmouth Memorial Hospital in Long Branch and took young Yvonne to the hospital for a visit. A very pregnant woman got on the elevator and soon began to scream. “There wasn’t any blood,” recounts Thornton. “She was wearing a long dress and at first she was standing up, and then suddenly she squatted down. When she stood up again, there were two people.”
Thornton knew then that the type of medicine she wanted to practice helped one person become two. “I tell the medical students I teach now that they cannot serve two masters; they have to be willing to put in the four-year residency that’s required in OB-GYN,” explains Thornton, aiming her comment specifically at her female medical students. “Obstetrics is a difficult area of medicine to practice because it creates a very disruptive lifestyle. That is why many [private] practitioners do not want women [to join their practice] because of their own family needs,” she says.
Thornton has personally delivered 5,542 babies since her days as a medical student in the 1970s and has overseen 12,000 deliveries. But before those healing hands could come into being, her father had to find a way to put his girls through college.
Banding Together for College Tuition
When his eldest daughter, Donna, asked for music lessons, Donald Thornton latched onto the notion that he could pay for his children’s college education by creating a family band called The Thornton Sisters. It was the late 1950s and the group played at amateur shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and on the “Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour” at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Although the group grew in popularity and skill, Donald Thornton never allowed his girls to go on tour or sign a record contract. Instead, he restricted their venues to Ivy League schools and college campuses on the East Coast. This way, the girls could study as they traveled to and from their gigs. “We were not going to compromise our long-term goal for short-term gain,” Thornton says of her father’s reasoning.
The group performed together from the time Thornton was in high school through her medical residency. It was a hectic schedule both on and off the stage, but the sisters were able to pay for their college tuition from the profits the group earned.
The Monmouth Choice
At their father’s insistence, all of the Thornton sisters attended Monmouth College in Long Branch so that they could perform in the band on weekends. Thornton recalls that she resentfully turned down admission to Barnard College in New York City. Not only was Monmouth College a teacher’s college, “In 1962 [it] was known as one of the playboy colleges of the East,” she explains. “It was also a finishing school for wealthy kids before they would enter their fathers’ businesses.”
Fortuitously, the school had a science department that was unparalleled. It was financed by Bell Labs, which was located near the campus, so that Bell Labs employees could get higher-level training in physics and chemistry. It was the perfect incubator for a would-be medical student.
Ironically, Thornton was the only Monmouth College graduate to ever go on to medical school. She was accepted at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University-Presbyterian Hospital—the very place where she was born. In 1973, she graduated from the school with honors and became the first woman accepted as a resident in the OB-GYN program at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.
Gown Versus Town
Thornton worked hard, adding credentials and qualifications to her resume. She landed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in maternal-fetal medicine at Sloane Hospital for Women and Babies Hospital at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, then served for two years as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. And every step of the way she turned the old boy’s network on its ear no matter what obstacles that network threw in her path.
She steered her career toward academia rather than private practice, choosing “gown versus town,” as she puts it. In 1982 she was hired as senior perinatologist in the OB-GYN department at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. “[When I left the Navy] they hired me sight unseen based solely on my credentials,” says Thornton. “But when I walked into their office my first day, you should’ve seen their faces.”
When they placed her in an office in the subbasement of the building, she knew she was in for a bumpy ride. “They made it very difficult for me, but as my dad would say, ‘Blossom where you’re planted. Don’t be a whiner; keep going, and get the job done.’”
And that’s exactly what she did. She was one of the few doctors researching the use of a new form of diagnostic fetal testing, chorionic villus sampling (CVS). Usually administered to women over 35, it is a less invasive alternative to amniocentesis. It was on the results of her research that the Food and Drug Administration relied before approving the procedure’s widespread use in American hospitals in 1989. “You do your best and wow them with your knowledge,” Thornton says.
Power Is Wonderful
It’s the same kind of dust-yourself-off pep talk she gives to her own children. Her son, Woody, 25, is a Harvard graduate who, like his parents, graduated from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is now studying to be a neurosurgeon. Daughter Kimberlee, 24, is a Stanford University graduate and concert pianist. “I’ve tried to teach my children that no matter what the color of their skin is, they have to have a better intellect,” Thornton says.
Of her five sisters, two became doctors, one became a nurse, another became a dentist. A fifth sister, a court stenographer, died of lupus. “We may not all have turned out to be doctors, but we did turn out to be very productive women of color. And I look up to the heavens and say, ‘Thank you, Mommy, and thank you, Daddy.’ “
In 1996, Thornton and her husband of more than 25 years, Shearwood J. McClelland, head of orthopedic surgery at Harlem Hospital, obtained executive master’s degrees in health policy and management (M.P.H.) from Columbia University, rendering Thornton an ideal candidate for her current position at Jamaica Hospital.
In 1998, Thornton published a woman’s health book, Woman to Woman (Plume Books, $13.95). Because she loves her job at Jamaica Hospital, she has no plans to retire, she says. The best thing about being a top executive,
she says, is having the power to spearhead initiatives that were ignored or hijacked in her previous positions. “A lot of my ideas were taken by white colleagues and they were given credit for them. Now all my ideas are mine and I get to see them happen. Power is wonderful,” she says.
By Bevolyn Williams-Harold