Alumni Spotlight: Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH
March is Women’s History Month, but we don’t need a reason to turn the spotlight on Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH. Dr. Thornton is an NMF Alumna who is a national leader in women’s health, and has been a voice for women in medicine for more than 40 years.
Dr. Thornton made history as the first African-American woman to be double Board-certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology and in Maternal-Fetal Medicine (or high-risk obstetrics). Over the course of her career, she has personally delivered more than 5,000 babies, while overseeing the deliveries of more than 12,000 babies at leading hospitals in the New York City metropolitan area.
But it is Dr. Thornton’s personal story that has inspired a whole nation, and changed the way we look at women in medicine.
The sub-basement and the glass ceiling
When Dr. Thornton entered medicine, women obstetricians were still rare, and a black woman obstetrician was even more unusual. Dr. Thornton faced all the challenges of being a minority trail-blazer. Doors were closed to her: and space could not be found. She began her career quite literally in the sub-basement of a major medical center. But nothing turned her away from her own vision of excellence——in patient care, teaching, and research.
Over the years, Dr. Thornton made larger and larger cracks in a very solid glass ceiling. Today she is Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York Medical College in Westchester County, New York. Of the 140,000 medical school faculty in this country, Dr. Thornton is one of only 9 black women who are full professors in her specialty. For 13 years, Dr. Thornton served in a very select group of oral Board Examiners who determine whether candidates meet the criteria to become Board-certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology. But more than that, she is a mentor and role model to young women who aspire to excellence, and are looking for ways to make it happen.
“The harder you work, the luckier you become.”
Dr. Thornton grew up in Long Branch, New Jersey, in relative poverty, one of six daughters of Donald and Itasker Thornton. From her father, a laborer with a 10th grade education, she and her sisters were given the dream of becoming physicians—and everything they needed to make that dream come true.
That included a deep value for education, and—remarkably—years of success performing as a rhythm and blues music group known as “The Thornton Sisters”—to support their college tuition. Most important was Donald Thornton’s wisdom, which has sustained Dr. Thornton, step by step, as she achieved her goals. (“If the front door is locked,” her father told her, “go around and try the back door.” Because you can do it.) The story of Dr. Thornton’s early years is told in her celebrated memoir, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters. Today Dr. Thornton is living her father’s dream and has achieved her own dreams as well.
“Like an acrobat on a high wire, I balanced career and parenthood.”
To young women physicians, Dr. Thornton offers encouragement and a model for doing it all. It’s not about having it all – it’s all about doing it all, and doing it well. You need a strategy and “consummate time management,” she says, to make all your dreams come true. For Dr. Thornton that involved being on-call for high-risk pregnancies, while appearing (sometimes at the last minute) at her children’s chess tournaments and piano recitals. She says, “I refused to let my schedule interfere when my kids needed me.”
Dr. Thornton is married to Shearwood J. McClelland, MD, MPH, a brilliant surgeon (and like her and NMF Alum) who is Director of Orthopaedic Surgery at Harlem Hospital Center in New York. It is clear that this marriage partnership made it easier for Dr. Thornton to manage a sometimes “brutal” schedule of her own. But Dr. McClelland has the last word: he has paid tribute to Dr. Thornton as an “inspiring wife and mother.” And he notes that being a high-achieving woman has not led her to sacrifice other interests – such as a love of ballroom dancing!
For Dr. Yvonne S. Thornton, becoming a physician has evolved from an impossible dream to a family tradition. Both of her children, Shearwood (Woody) McClelland, III and Kimberly I. McClelland are physicians. In 2014, Dr. Thornton established the Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy Memorial Scholarship at NMF to acknowledge the contributions of slave women to the practice of Obstetrics and Gynecology.