Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner
Dr. Yvonne Thornton, author of Something to Prove: A Daughter’s Journey to Fulfill a Father’s Legacy (2010), and the e-book Inside Information for Women: Answers to the Mysteries of the Female Body and Her Health (2011), has broken down gender and race barriers, and in the process become an inspiration to millions.
In Dr. Thornton’s first book, the Pulitzer-prize nominated best-selling memoir The Ditch Digger’s Daughters (1995), she describes her upbringing, detailing how her parents, a maid and a manual laborer, brought her and her four sisters from the projects to possibility, with four of the girls eventually pursuing careers in medicine at the behest of their father.
Dr. Thornton graduated from Monmouth University in 1969, then headed to the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1970, at a time when just five percent of specialists in obstetrics and gynecology were women.
In 1979, Dr. Thornton, along with her husband, Shearwood McClelland, volunteered for active duty in the United States Navy stationed at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, where she served as Lieutenant Commander in the Medical Corps.
Double board-certified in obstetrics-gynecology and maternal-fetal medicine, Dr. Thornton began her career as an assistant professor in obstetrics-gynecology and clinic director at New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center, where she established and developed the program for a new form of early prenatal diagnostic testing known as chorionic villus sampling. She went on to work at both Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey and St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Medical Center in New York.
In 1996, Dr. Thornton received a master’s in public health in health policy and management from the Columbia University School of Public Health. In 2003, she received academic appointment as a full professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Weill-Cornell University Medical College.
Dr. Thornton has been married for 36 years to Shearwood, an orthopedic surgeon, and she is the mother of two children. Her daughter is a graduate of Stanford University currently in her first year of medical school, studying to be a pediatric reconstructive surgeon. Her son, also a physician, was a cum laude graduate of Harvard University, a recent graduate of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and is now a resident in neurosurgery.
Recently, Dr. Thornton took time out of her busy schedule to share her insights with SDN.
Why did you choose to become a physician?
My father always wanted all of us (his daughters) to become physicians. I always wanted to be an obstetrician and deliver babies, so it was a confluence of my father’s wishes and my own desires.
Why did you choose your specialty?
I don’t know why, but I always wanted to deliver babies.
Did you plan to enter your current specialty prior to med school?
I did—always wanted to deliver babies. I just didn’t know that obstetrics included all the other elements as well.
If you had it to do all over again, would you still become a physician? (Why or why not? What would you have done instead?)
Yes! I find this career very fulfilling and very satisfying. It’s a very noble career to help another person.
What were some of the challenges you faced en route to becoming the first African-American woman board certified in maternal-fetal medicine?
I am the era of one foot in the future one foot in the past. I didn’t have any role models. Old folks like me broke the barriers–for women over 50, the choice was be a mother or have a career, not both. I’d been a doctor for many years before I became a mother.
My challenge was that people didn’t want me there. As I was reaching for the brass ring, I saw the rock wall…racism, male chauvinism, misogyny. I had more problems being a woman than being black. I turned stumbling blocks into stepping stones. Excellence is the only antidote–they may not want to come see you, but if you’re the best they will have to.
What do you like most and least about being a physician and interacting with patients?
I like being able to heal people. As for what I like least, I don’t know what that could be—I took a Hippocratic oath, so there is no least.
Describe a typical day at work.
It’s joy. I’m at the twilight of my career. There is no typical day dealing with pregnant women, I teach, preceptor, do perinatal consults, etc. I have been in academic medicine for my entire career, so I have always been teaching. I want to pass along the craft, skills, though processes, medical intelligence. It’s like being a surrogate parent.
How many hours a week do you work?
In the old days, I worked 120 hours a week. Until recently, I worked full time. Now it’s about 20 hours. They call us the diurnal obstetricians. We get a call from an O.B. at 3 a.m. and we tell them it’s time to deliver the baby, and then hang up and roll over and go back to sleep.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in health care today?
The term healthcare industry is an oxymoron. The downfall of medicine is that it patterns itself after a business model. It’s the main reason I studied for my master’s in public health, to try to understand HMOs. I still don’t understand HMOs.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in your specialty?
Obesity–it’s an insidious and subtle killer. You can’t call anyone fat or obese. It’s the scourge of obstetrics. Twenty percent of pregnant women are obese, but people are hush hush about it. Obesity is benign neglect. Nobody wants to manage overweight patients. We as obstetricians contribute to obesity. In 1986, we were told that regardless of a woman’s weight before pregnancy, she needed to gain 26 to 35 pound or else the pregnancy would end in fetal death. We need to be looking at overall health and how much the mother weighs to begin with. It’s no longer “eating for two.”
(Dr. Thornton did a seminal study on pregnancy weight gain in which she determined pregnant women may not need to gain weight, but should instead focus on healthy eating. Her findings were published in Journal of the National Medical Association.)
Do you agree with the rules changes regarding resident work hours? If not, what concerns do you have about the changes?
This is not shift work. People not in medicine are dictating to those who are. I have residents who never see the full continuum of illness–they just don’t have the hours. Especially surgeons–they need to be there to observe before, during, after. Residents come in at 9 and leave at 5. This is not an office job. I wouldn’t want a doctor trained that way.
What do you find inspiring about the medical profession today? What about current medical students, residents, and new doctors?
When you deliver a difficult pregnancy and both patients are alive. I’ve delivered 5,542 babies and oversaw 12,000 deliveries. I get to touch immortality.
If you had unlimited funding, what sort of research would you like to conduct?
Reproductive women’s health. The only thing ever really studied has been the pill, but I’d like to study endometriosis, ovarian cancer, etc.
Your children are currently in the midst of their own medical education process as a student and resident. How is their experience different from that of you and your husband?
It was very paramilitary when I was in medical school. Now it’s softened—everybody’s a friend. And no one wears a wristwatch anymore!
What advice did you give your children as they considered pursing medicine as a career?
Never give up. They are the children of two physicians, so they are privileged with focus and structure. We raised them lovingly strict—they weren’t at the mall. We knew where they were.
What helped you pass your exams? Any study tricks or tips?
Know the material! It’s not about passing the exam.
Now it’s all about the numbers (MCAT scores). There’s nothing about bedside manner or spirit or a humanitarian approach, and patient gets lost in the middle of it all. It’s all about taking tests instead of taking care of patients. It’s the deterioration of the profession–it’s just a job now.
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any? Any international work?
I’m on the board of trustees of the Fair Housing Council in northern New Jersey. Your future is based on where you live. I was denied housing in 1982 in Bergen County, and the Fair Housing Council fought for me.
What do you like to do for relaxation or stress relief? Can you share any advice on finding a balance between work and life?
I needle point—it relaxes me. I’m also a championship competitive ballroom dancer, a musician (saxophone) and vocalist. I’m 60 years old, and I don’t take many breaks. My greatest accomplishment is being the mother of two great kids.