“Women became secretaries, teachers, or nurses,” she says. “Women didn’t become doctors, they married doctors.”
Member of Adelphi University’s Profiles in Success program.
Former OphthalmologistMost influential Adelphi faculty: “Ruth Harley; she was a woman before her time.”
Advice to Adelphi faculty and deans: “You are a resource to students; encourage them to discover what they really want to pursue. Guide them as to what courses they should choose to achieve their goals.”
Breaking Barriers and Opening Eyes
“Growing up, I think I watched too many Rosalind Russell movies, where women were taking orders from men,” says Barbara Mitchell. “I wanted to be a physician and take care of patients myself.”
Although she aspired to be a doctor, Dr. Mitchell struggled against the prevailing attitudes of her time. “Women became secretaries, teachers, or nurses,” she says. “Women didn’t become doctors, they married doctors.”
Dr. Mitchell, whose parents made great sacrifices so that she and her brother could attend college, initially put her pre-med dreams aside because she did not have the money for medical school. Instead, motivated by the value her parents placed on education as well as her love for medicine, she decided to pursue nursing at Adelphi.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University’s nursing program, she felt like she still wanted more. She sought guidance from the dean of women, Ruth Harley: “I met with her and explained that I wanted to be a doctor,” she recalls. “Ruth Harley helped me map out a program in which I could complete all the courses that would make me eligible to go to medical school,” she says.
Following three more years fulfilling pre-med requirements at Adelphi, she went on to work at Creedmor and Meadowbrook Hospitals, after which she began applying for medical schools. She recalls interviews in which medical schools clearly had no intention of accepting women. She received multiple rejection letters which read simply: “We do not accept women as medical students.”
In the end, her determination exceeded the opposition she faced: she was accepted to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. “It was a supportive environment because we could all share the same stories with each other,” she recalls. Interestingly, she remembers a few women in her class who were married. “Their husbands were ahead of the times,” she says.
Upon the completion of medical school in 1962, she decided what her specialty would be. “I chose ophthalmology,” she says. “I especially liked the immediate impact you could have on the patient.”
She searched up and down the East Coast for a residency in ophthalmology, but her efforts were unsuccessful at first. Thanks to the help of a professor from medical school, she was able to arrange a meeting with the chief of Wills Eye Hospital in Pennsylvania.
“I was fortunate to enroll in one of the best ophthalmology residency programs available,” says Dr. Mitchell, who landed a spot at Wills Eye Hospital under two conditions. First, she was required to complete a year of research prior to beginning the program; and second, she had to promise she would not get pregnant or married.
Even enrolled in such a prestigious program, she still encountered adversity and resentment from her fellow residents. “I was asked why I would go into ophthalmology when I could pursue obstetrics and gynecology.” As the only woman in the program, she remembers being seen as “taking a man’s spot.”
After six months in this environment, she was ready to quit, until she was reminded of how important this opportunity was, not just for her, but for future generations of women looking to embark on careers in medicine. “If I left, my professor of medicine would never be able to get another woman in for her residency either,” she says.
With her residency completed in 1967, she moved to the West Coast, determined to open her own private practice. She started her life in California in a position at an integrated managed care organization, before working for an ophthalmologist in the area. It was during this experience that she learned the ins and outs of running a private practice.
Within two years, she fulfilled her dream. In 1969, she opened her own private practice—the first woman to do so in Long Beach, California. She found her work to be truly gratifying: “My patients were so grateful when you gave back their vision,” she says. “It gave me such great satisfaction to help them.”
She maintained her practice for 25 years, after which she joined California’s Board of Medical Quality Assurance. Before long she returned to her work as an ophthalmologist, practicing with a partner in the operating room.
Looking back, she attributes her successful career to her mentor at Adelphi: “Ruth Harley didn’t know me from any other person, yet she did everything she could to point me in the right direction. She understood I wanted to be a doctor; something so many people failed to recognize as a possibility for me,” she says. “If it weren’t for Ruth Harley, I wouldn’t have been able to go to medical school.”
Today Dr. Mitchell continues to keep up with medicine; she sits on the bioethics committee at Memorial Hospital in Long Beach, and still attends continuing medical education meetings.
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