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Examining distinction

Yale School of Medicine’s students and faculty are a more varied group with each passing year, making for a more balanced place to study medicine.

Yale School of Medicine’s first Black graduate was Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, MD ’57, who matriculated in 1853. The son of a New Haven bootmaker, Creed overcame poverty and prejudice to serve as a surgeon with the Union Army during the Civil War. He corresponded with Frederick Douglass, and ran successful medical practices in New Haven and Brooklyn. An energetic and accomplished member of New Haven’s society and medical community, Creed more than justified his admission to Yale.

According to the thesis of another far more recent Black graduate, U.S. Navy Captain Daryl K. Daniels, MD ’91, it took nearly 20 years for YSM to graduate its second and third Black doctors, and 12 more before it graduated its fourth. From then until 1960, when Captain Daniels’ study stops, the school graduated Black doctors sporadically and in small numbers. The first Black woman to graduate from YSM, Beatrix McCleary Hamburg, did not do so until 1948.

In the Civil Rights era, allowing and then facilitating equal access to medical education to all people became a major priority for Yale. Thus began the process of creating a truly egalitarian learning experience; one that is far closer to reality in theory and practice today than at any time before.

“We put a lot of effort into making sure each class is as balanced and diverse as possible given the pool of applicants,” said Ayaska Fernando, director of admissions. “We are fortunate to have the luxury of drawing on an incredibly diverse applicant pool, so each student can uniquely add to the School of Medicine; holistically, the class is strongest when those unique attributes are complementary to each other and collectively demonstrate diversity across multiple fronts.”

YSM is dedicated to the education of students, first and foremost, and it’s unsurprising therefore that diversification efforts started in earnest with scholars matriculating at the institution. At the same time that YSM and peer institutions were beginning to vary their class compositions, they began efforts to do the same with faculty. Those initiatives gathered speed in the 1970s and 80s.

When it comes to the diversification of faculty gender, several groups provided powerful advocacy over the years. The first formal standing committees dedicated to the task were YSM’s Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine or SWIM, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2019; and the Office for Women in Medicine or OWM (also begun in the late 1970s and the first such office in the United States). These groups secured important advances for women specifically and underrepresented minorities more broadly, especially in the last few years.

Nina Stachenfeld, PhD, senior research scientist in obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences, said “SWIM members as well as faculty and students in other organizations have been lobbying for our constituents for years. We’re thrilled by recent wins, but a lot of hard work remains to be done.”

When SWIM started out in 1979, said Stachenfeld, the culture in medicine was aggressively patriarchal. This unfair system was perpetuated by a lack of women in leadership positions. And while female students were admitted to elite medical schools like YSM in more approximately equal numbers, that did not translate into positions for senior faculty or other leaders.

“What we’re talking about now, which we have been talking about for some years, is how to fix ‘the pipeline,’ ” Stachenfeld said. “This is the phenomenon where one has parity with female and male medical students, parity with junior faculty, and then, when it comes to chairs and deans, not much parity at all. We hope that status quo is changing.”

Other groups have organized to participate in driving parity beyond a balance between two genders; the Faculty Advisory Committee (FAC) and Minority Organization for Retention & Expansion (MORE) both examine areas in which historical or present-day minorities are underrepresented, and bring greater attention to them. This work is coordinated by and run through the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The head of the office, Darin Latimore, MD, is deputy dean and chief diversity officer.

“It said a lot about Yale School of Medicine that they would create this role and empower it. Change can be difficult, but change is necessary for growth,” Latimore said.

Three of the many events that Latimore has overseen or advised include a panel on October 30, “De-stigmatizing disability: Tribulations and Triumphs of Disability at Yale”; “Q-Forward: Building LGBTQI+ Leaders in Health Care,” held on March 28-29, believed to among the first of its kind; and the Respect Retreat held on May 24, also believed to be the first of its kind at a U.S. medical school. The retreat featured Esther Choo, MPH, MD ’01 as well as the organization she helped co-found, TIME’S UP Healthcare.

“Diversity and inclusion should be part of our everyday practices,” said Latimore. “My hope is that someday this office is obsolete, that people understand how to respect each other and that our institution reflects those fundamental personal values.”

“We talk about it, but do we do it? That’s the question I hope everyone is asking themselves,” said Latimore. In the meantime, he plans to continue assisting the various allied groups and individuals on campus who are working to achieve equal representation.