Pioneering Physician and BU School of Medicine Leader
They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world a more inclusive place. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles. They are mentoring students or younger colleagues, hiring diverse candidates, offering opportunities, and ensuring that employees succeed and are promoted so that their workplace and their communities reflect the richness and talents of the country’s increasingly diverse population.
As a bright girl growing up in a prominent family in Panama and Guyana and going to the best schools there, Marcelle Willock dreamed of becoming a doctor. Her father, who was a newspaper editor, and her mother, who exerted her own quiet power at home, made it clear that their only daughter could do anything she wanted.
But then, at age 16, Willock came to the United States to attend the College of New Rochelle, a Catholic women’s school in suburban New York, and the time came to apply to medical school. It was the late 1950s.
“That’s when I got this awakening,” says Willock (Questrom’89). “Only 6 percent of medical students at the time were women.”
What’s more, the Ursuline nuns who ran her college informed her that few US medical schools accepted any Black students, male or female (the majority of Black physicians at the time were educated at two historically black medical schools: Meharry Medical College and Howard University College of Medicine), and that she should apply to Howard.
“Howard was the Harvard of HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities],” says Willock. She graduated from Howard in 1962.
After completing her residency in anesthesiology at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, in New York City, she went on to spend nine years on the faculty at New York University School of Medicine—she led the residency program at NYU’s teaching hospital, Bellevue Medical Center—before leaving to join the faculty at Columbia University. She earned a master’s in higher education at Columbia Teachers College.
In 1982, after Leah Lowenstein, an assistant dean at BU’s School of Medicine, suggested she apply for the job, Willock became a professor and chair of the MED anesthesiology department. She was a pioneer—the first Black woman to chair a department at the school, the first Black woman to lead the department of anesthesiology at the former Boston University Medical Center Hospital and Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center, MED’s teaching hospital), and among the first women of color to lead an academic and clinical department in the United States.
Willock, who was chair for 16 years, is credited with a number of achievements and innovations, including the accreditation of the MED residency program in anesthesia and standardizing guidelines for anesthesia related to patient safety. In the early 1980s, dentists were still providing anesthesia care to patients at Boston City Hospital. After a nine-year battle with hospital officials, Willock succeeded in ending the practice and ensuring that only qualified physician anesthesiologists could provide anesthesia.
“I was not going to lose that one,” she says.
After several years as MED’s associate provost for community affairs, Willock left BU in 2002 to become the first female dean of the Charles R. Drew University College of Medicine, in Los Angeles, a position she held until 2005, when she retired and returned to Boston.
In 2019, half a century after she entered Howard, Willock broke one more barrier in academic medicine at BU: in recognition of her lifetime contributions to the University, and her field, she was appointed MED’s first Black female professor emerita. (While the school currently has 54 Black female faculty members, there are no Black women serving as department chairs; two departments are chaired by Black men.)
“You are living history,” Rafael Ortega, chair of MED’s department of anesthesiology, told Willock at the ceremony celebrating her appointment. Willock, who has long worked to address racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, had opened doors for him at BU, Ortega said.
In 2019, women were for the first time a majority of students at medical schools in the United States. But Black medical students made up only 3.2 percent of the students, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges. And Blacks make up only about 5 percent of the physician workforce.
Bostonia talked with Willock about her professional journey, how she handled the barriers along the way, and how she has guided generations of young physicians and academics through their careers.
with Marcelle Willock
Bostonia: How did you decide you wanted to be a doctor?
Marcelle Willock: That’s the only thing I wanted to do from the time I was four years old. The family doctor who delivered me was a friend of our family. I loved him and I decided I was going to be a doctor, like him. My parents never told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.
Bostonia: What was your experience like at the College of New Rochelle in the 1950s?
Marcelle Willock: It had just recently integrated. I think I was the sixth person of color they admitted. Every year they would take one Black and one Puerto Rican. I had a white roommate my second year. We’re still friends to this day.
I had one episode, in town. My roommate wanted to get her hair cut. We walked into a beauty salon not far from the campus. My roommate said, “I need a haircut.” They said, “We can take you now.” My roommate said to me, “Do you want to get your hair cut, too?” They said, “We will never serve you.” My roommate said, “If you will not serve her, you will not serve me, and I’m going to tell the college and they’re going to take you off the list.” We both walked out.
Bostonia: How did you end up going to Howard for medical school?
Marcelle Willock: I had no idea that many schools didn’t take women or minorities at the time. It was never a barrier to me personally. That’s what I wanted to do. My family said, “If you want to do it, you have to study and meet the requirements, and you will do it.”
My family was Catholic, and my grandfather was the patriarch of the family; he wanted me to go to a Catholic medical school. I applied to Creighton in Omaha because one of our family friends in Panama had graduated from there. Our family doctor had graduated from McGill in Canada, and he recommended I also apply to McGill.
Then the nuns brought me up to date that some of these schools did not take women or Blacks. They said I should apply to Howard. I got into McGill, but when the acceptance letter came, it was 40 degrees below there. That was too cold. I got into Creighton, too, but we didn’t know anyone in Omaha. We had family friends in Washington, so I went to Howard.
Bostonia: What was your experience like at Howard?
Marcelle Willock: Howard was an excellent education. It was tough. Because of limited opportunity for them to go elsewhere, the Black doctors who were the stars were all at Howard. The top Black professors were at Howard. You had to be smart to get in.
I entered Howard in 1958. Ours was the largest class of women until then. We had 10 women in our class, out of 100 students, and all of us graduated. We were always in the top half, if not the top third.
After I got to this country…it became a battle of the two—race and gender. Both were obstacles. I think I’ve weathered the obstacles.
The quality of care for patients at the hospital—Freedman’s Hospital—was excellent. Everybody at the hospital was Black. Doctor’s wives were patients and so were bus drivers. The standard of care was to treat every patient with dignity and respect. Nobody had to tell you that.
Segregation was very obvious in Washington. When I got my first car, I went to pick it up in Georgetown. Georgetown was very, very white. A couple of my classmates went with me to pick up the car. We were stopped by the police and asked what we were doing there and told we did not belong there and to leave. You didn’t argue because you didn’t know what would happen to you.
Bostonia: Were there women faculty you looked to as role models and mentors?
Howard had always had women faculty in both the basic sciences and the clinical faculty. Excellence was their number one motto. You were going to be excellent in everything you did.
One of the professors of obstetrics and gynecology, Lena Edwards, was a role model. When she retired from Howard, she went down to the Texas border and started a bunch of obstetrics clinics for Mexicans. President [Lyndon] Johnson gave her the Medal of Freedom.
There was a professor of anatomy, Ruth Lloyd. She was really my mentor in the truest sense. People use the word mentor casually now. It’s someone who’s really invested in you. True mentorship is a long-term relationship. Dr. Loyd stayed in contact with you a good 20 years after graduation.
I used to get god-awful periods, with really a lot of pain. There was an anatomy exam freshman year, and I was in agony. I remember going to Dr. Lloyd and telling her, “I don’t think I can take this exam.” She said, “Marcelle, you want to be a doctor. The patient doesn’t care if you’re dying. You’re a good student—sit down and do the exam.”
I passed the exam.
Bostonia: How did you choose your specialty?
I liked surgery and I did very well in it, so I chose surgery initially. The faculty student advisor said to me, “Marcelle, you’re good at it, you like it, go for it.” I had tremendous support at Howard.
Because I was a woman and a minority, I was limited where I could apply for a surgical internship. I applied to Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn and I was accepted in surgery, and then when I got there, that was probably my first experience of discrimination. I was the only woman in the surgical group and the only person of color, out of maybe 10 people.
In surgery I would get my cases taken away. Instead of being sent to the operating room, I was sent to take care of my patients on the floor. I presumed it was because I was a female. There were hardly any females in surgery at the time.
Bostonia: Was there anyone you could go to for support and guidance?
The chief resident in medicine was a Black fellow who had been at Howard. He was a senior when I was a freshman. He was number one in the class. He was so smart that everyone knew and respected him. He was somebody I could go and talk to. His wife had been his classmate at Howard. She was in pathology. She was very smart, too. They were like my safety net.
One of the things I found out was that I actually liked taking care of the patients, and that is sort of what anesthesiologists do when the surgeons are operating.
There were two female anesthesiology residents—one was Black, one white—who took a liking to me. They said to me, “Marcelle, this is how it is, they’ll never make you a chief resident in surgery because you’re a woman and you’re Black. So think about anesthesiology.”
At the end of the first year, I decided I’d interview for an anesthesiology fellowship in New York. When I went for my Cornell interview, the chairman there was arrogant and condescending. He said, “I’ll see who’s available to show you around.” He comes back with a Black guy. He said, “He’s the only resident free. Let him show you around.”
Then I went up to Columbia, and it was like night and day. The chairman, Emanuel Papper [founding chair of Columbia’s anesthesiology department], was very gracious and welcoming. Dr. Papper was a great mentor to me.
I started in July  and a month later, I went to him and said, “I want to go to the March on Washington.” I had to defend my reasons because if I took the day off, it would be a burden on my classmates.
Bostonia: Why was it important for you to attend the March?
I had an “aunt” in New York, a family friend, who I would visit often. She was an attorney and was part of a group of people who were very active in civil rights. Bayard Rustin [the civil rights leader] and A. Philip Randolph [who led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African American labor union], would meet at her house, in Hastings, in Westchester County.
You wanted to be at the march, you were expected to be there. It was like the Women’s March in Boston [which Willock attended] four years ago. There were just so many thousands of people marching, in unison. It was a joyous occasion, it was inspirational.
Bostonia: What was it like when you arrived at BU?
I was told by certain higher-ups to know my place. A couple of faculty told me they were not going to work for a Black person. I wasn’t going to fire them, because then I would be accused of retaliation. I had to put up with it. When they tell you they’re not going to work with you, they’re going to undermine you when you’re trying to set standards. You took the job, you live with it.
When I got to BU, I remember a very senior [white male] said, “Marcelle, don’t speak up so much.” There were three Black women who were senior administrative assistants. They were all high school graduates and very capable at their jobs. These women were soft-spoken. That same senior person told me those women should be my role models.
Growing up in Panama and Guyana, being Black was not such an obstacle, and I had opportunities for a good education. But women were still very much behind. So for me my gender was more of an obstacle than my race. But after I got to this country and I got further along and became more prominent, it became a battle of the two—race and gender. Both were obstacles. I think I’ve weathered the obstacles.
I came to Boston right after busing [court-ordered, to desegregate the city’s public schools]. Some people would make comments to you. At the hospital some of the nurses [who were white] were from Southie and didn’t show respect. I had a job to do and I did it. I was the boss.
Bostonia: You’ve mentored generations of young physicians, many of them women and people of color. What has been your advice to them?
I tell everyone, “You are going to incur difficulties. You may not be able to overcome all the difficulties you are going to encounter, but you’re going to try. Whatever you’re going to do, you’re going to do your absolute best. It may not be good enough because you don’t have the talent or the knowledge, but your effort has to be 100 percent.
“And just because the other person is a jerk doesn’t mean you have to be one. Don’t hate anybody, because hate destroys you. You are wasting your time worrying about them, and they don’t give a damn about you.” My mother taught me that.