Valerie E. Stone, M.D. ’84, M.P.H., and Tina Young Poussaint, M.D. ’83, met at the School of Medicine in 1979, when they were moving into Harkness Dorm as first-year students. They became good friends, and despite cross-country moves and different medical specialties, they have remained close. When both landed in Boston—Stone at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Poussaint initially at MGH and currently at Children’s Hospital Boston—and on the faculty of Harvard Medical School (HMS), they began meeting monthly over dinner to catch up on their lives and careers. Recently their dinner was also a celebration—Stone, an infectious disease specialist and internist, and Poussaint, a neuroradiologist and expert in neuro-oncologic imaging, had just been named full professors, making them the first African-American women to hold this rank in their respective departments, medicine and radiology—and only the second and third African-American women to achieve this rank at HMS.
Though both women have CVs as thick as novels, becoming a full professor is often uncharted territory for even the most accomplished black women doctors. At a social gathering with fellow female African-American Harvard associate professors a few years ago, Stone recalled, the group knew of only one black woman who had been named a professor at HMS—in the Department of Psychiatry—about two decades earlier. That professor had since left Harvard and the group wondered whether another black woman would ever be named a full professor there.
“We had just gone on so long without one, and history tends to predict history,” said Stone, who is also the first African-American woman on Massachusetts General Hospital’s staff to be named a full professor. “But I never thought that it was impossible for one of us to be promoted to full professor—challenging, but not impossible. I really felt that it was just a matter of time for the medical school, and a matter of reaching the required level of achievement for one (or more) of us.”
Both Stone and Poussaint said the lack of other female African-American full professors reflects the scarcity of minorities in medicine. “There are very few minority women who become doctors,” said Stone. “An even smaller percentage of those women go into academic medicine and many of those who start out in academic medicine don’t ‘stay the course’ for a variety of reasons, including the difficulties of getting grant funding and the paucity of minority mentors.”
Poussaint, who directs the Neuro-imaging Center for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium at Children’s Hospital Boston and in 2010 co-authored the Atlas of Pediatric Brain Tumors, didn’t let the fact that none of her career mentors or role models looked like her deter her from climbing the academic ladder. “If you persevere and are strong and determined, anything is possible in 2011,” said Poussaint, the first female African-American professor at Children’s Hospital Boston. “My hope is that academics in medicine will eventually better reflect the composition of this country.”
In Stone and Poussaint’s class at Yale there were three African-American women and seven African-American men out of 102 students. Poussaint, a graduate of a women’s college, never felt marginalized as part of a minority group, noting that she was close to classmates of all races. “I went to Mount Holyoke College, so for me diversity also included men and women in the classroom together,” she said.
There were times, however, during Poussaint’s first year when administrative staff would call her by the names of the other black women in the class. “We three looked really different, so it was clear we were just not being looked at very closely as individual human beings,” said Poussaint, who is married to noted child psychiatrist and Harvard professor Alvin Poussaint, M.D. Together they have an 11-year-old daughter.
Stone has a stepdaughter, a senior at Georgetown University, with her long-term partner, a research scientist at HMS and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Stone said that she is one of a number of those in her generation of physicians who were moved to make a difference in a disease which was first described while she was in medical school: AIDS. “I was a third-year medical student when I first remember hearing about it,” said Stone. “I was fascinated by the clinical manifestations of the disease and saddened by the way it was disproportionately affecting minorities and vulnerable populations.” Now Stone is a leading expert on HIV/AIDS among minorities and women; in 2009 she co-authored a book titled HIV/AIDS in U.S. Communities of Color.
Both Stone and Poussaint said Yale’s emphasis on lifelong learning prepared them for long careers in medicine. “The Yale system promotes a sense of responsibility,” said Stone. “You keep up with the literature not because of an upcoming test but because you want to continue to grow as a physician.”