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Healthcare Shero Breaks Barriers, Cultivates the Next Generation: Deborah Prothrow-Stith, M.D., C'75

November 2019

Deborah Prothrow-StithThe medical bug bit Deborah Prothrow-Stith, M.D., C’75, in her elementary school years. After a physician’s visit, she told all who would listen that she wanted to be a doctor.

“As a kid in the first grade, I wrote a story about becoming a doctor,” said the board-certified internist who currently serves as dean and professor at Charles R. Drew University College of Medicine in Los Angeles. “I kept saying I wanted to be a doctor because I loved the way people responded.”

That was in the 1950s when Jim Crow segregation had a stronghold on the region where she grew up. Her family relocated twice between Atlanta and Texas, and she completed her high school education at Jack Yates High School in Houston. Then in 1971, Spelman College called her back to Atlanta. Majoring in mathematics, she was taught and mentored by pioneering Black female mathematician, Etta Falconer, Ph.D., and Nagambal Shah, Ph.D., groundbreaking statistician and co-founder of the Infinite Possibilities Conference.

Choosing Spelman 

“Spelman was the perfect place for me … not only [due to] the nurturing [environment], but also because it was challenging,” shared the Harvard Medical School graduate. “It was challenging in a context where expectations were high.”

Prothrow-Stith, author of four books, added it was a place where she “could reflect on my mistakes, my need to improve without feeling responsible for the race or what’s happening with women in math.”

She also fondly remembered spending summers after her sophomore and junior years in a UNCF program jointly hosted by Fisk University and Meharry Medical School for students interested in medicine.

“If there was going to be a prize in math or some [prestigious] opportunity, a Black woman was going to get it,” she noted. A level-playing field provided her a solid springboard to one of the nation’s top medical schools and a stellar career.

Prothrow-Stith devoted a significant amount of her career to gun-violence prevention. Her book, Deadly Consequences, is often cited by reporters and in speeches, essays and other literature.

“I learned that homicide was a leading cause of death for Black men,” she said. “As a Black woman, I knew too many Black men who were not violent. I couldn’t accept it as the way it was.”

Solving Social Justice Issues 

So, she set out to do something about it, working with others to refocus the lens of the dilemma from a criminal justice problem to a public health crisis.

Prothrow-Stith, who was the first woman to serve as a Commissioner of Public Health for Massachusetts, admitted that her passion for gun-violence prevention waned after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in New Town, Connecticut, in 2012. Gun control efforts failed in the aftermath.

“I thought, well, if these first and second graders getting killed doesn’t change our policies and laws, I don’t know what will,” she said.

Youth activism in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 and injured 17 in 2018 reenergized her. Prothrow-Stith, recipient of 10 honorary degrees and numerous accolades, including a World Health Day Award, pointed out that voting-age student survivors of the shooting reached across race and class, and worked to get the Florida Legislature to raise the age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21, extend the waiting period for all gun purchases, and ban bump stocks.

“It wasn’t a perfect law, but they got it passed,” she said.

Impacting her Community 

Prothrow-Stith is a National Academy of Medicine inductee and a 2015 inductee into the Massachusetts Medical Society’s honor roll of women physicians. She has leveraged her background and expertise as a principal with Spencer Stuart, advising healthcare, life sciences, academic and nonprofit clients on executive talent. At Drew College of Medicine, she is cultivating the next generation of physicians poised to make their own marks on the world.

“The most important thing for me is helping students recognize those moments where their specialness, their uniqueness, is able to provide a contribution as we try to solve a problem … as society tries to solve a problem.”

Deborah Prothrow-Stith

By Tomika Depriest, C'89, as seen in The Spelman Messenger.