By Phillip, Mary-Christine
Black Issues in Higher Education , Vol. 11, No. 22
Ohio University's Supreme Doctor: Dean Barbara Ross-Lee of the College. of Osteopathic Medicine
by Mary-Christine Phillip
No mountain was high enough to keep Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee from fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor.
Ross-Lee, a year after becoming the first African-American woman to head a U.S. medical school, did not stop thinking about her career and how she could help others, even in the name of love. Family hardships came with the career moves, but she and her family adjusted.
As dean of the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine, she says there is often a reluctance on the part of minorities to become interested in osteopathic medicine, where opportunities abound, especially for those who want to have an impact on programs and policies for delivering care to the populations "we are most concerned about.
"Being dean of a medical school is of no consequence unless I can make the way better for those who follow ... those who must follow me. But I was not always a medical school dean. Before that, I was a medical educator. Before that, I was a family physician practicing in inner-city Detroit. Before that, I was a schoolteacher, and before that I was poor and living in the housing projects of Detroit," she says.
Osteopathic medicine poses a mystery to many. Osteopathic physicians, with the same qualifications as M.D.s, diagnose illnesses, prescribe drugs and perform surgery. In addition, they focus on the musculoskeletal, use physical "manipulation" techniques and pay closer attention to posture, bones and muscles than M.D.s.
"It's a field of medicine that is still not widely known, but that's changing. We are primary-care physicians, and while our historical evolution has been primarily in the Midwest, we are spreading throughout the country. This is what the country needs," says Ross-Lee.
A Supreme Sister
Ross-Lee is the sister of pop diva Diana Ross. Medical experts say she is on her way to being as well known in her field as her sister is in the world of entertainment.
She is the oldest of six children from a poor inner-city Detroit housing project, who became a surrogate mother at age 10 when her mother was hospitalized for two years with tuberculosis. Although she had to clear many hurdles before becoming a doctor, Ross-Lee never let go of her dreams.
"I'm an expert on poverty because I spent all my childhood years poor. Poverty is a state of mind which can only be cured with hope. With hope, poverty is a temporary state of being broke. Without hope, poverty is a life sentence."
Always considered studious, Ross-Lee first dreamed of becoming a doctor while taking chemistry and biology in high school. The first member of her family to attend college, she married James Lee, a teacher, when she was a junior at Wayne State University.
It was while attending college that she encountered certain biases against women in the biomedical field. She said that her female pre-med adviser tried to steer women students into nursing courses.
"I have always been Black and female surviving in a hostile society because of a strong extended family," says Ross-Lee. "My family gave me hope. I had a dream that I would make a difference, that I would care."
After graduation, she worked as a hospital biochemist. Then, after the birth of her first two children, she switched to teaching junior high school while working toward a master's degree in education.
"It was very hard for minorities and women to get into medical school at the time," says Ross-Lee, who, after a divorce, entered Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic medicine in 1970.
In 1973, Ross-Lee earned a doctorate in osteopathy and spent the next 10 years in private practice in Detroit, where she "loved her patients and enjoyed the practice."
Many people sought her out because of her famous sister. …