Yvonne S. Thornton, MD
The Thornton Sisters in 1962
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“I was taught to tell what I think,” Dr. Thornton says. “Many people of color will say, ‘You can’ t say that; don’t do that, the man will come down on you.’ And I say, ‘No, what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. And the truth will set me free.’”
She insists the Thornton Sisters weren’t so much talented as goal-oriented. “Anybody can do what we did; you just have to apply yourself. I really believe that. I can tell you right now, nobody can out-study me.”
“Whenever Yvonne undertakes something, there’s a certain sense of purpose that she brings to it,” says her husband, Shearwood J. McClelland, MD, the son of a steelworker from Gary, Indiana, who has been director of Orthopedics at Harlem Hospital since 1993.
The couple became friends in medical school in 1968. By that time, Jeanette, Donna, and Tass had quit the band. This left Yvonne, Linda, and Rita to soldier on as a trio. Yvonne performed through med school and into her residency at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, working round-the-clock shifts during the week, playing on weekends, until the sisters finally called it quits in 1976.
“She always seemed to have extra energy for playing with her family,” McClelland says of his wife. “She could be very tired from studying, but, when the weekend came, it was show time!”
“Yvonne represents all of us, all of my sisters,” says Linda, a retired Army officer and a professor at Temple University’s School of Dentistry. “We always knew that nothing was going to be given to us, that we had to work hard for everything.”
The long, drawn-out birth of The Ditchdigger’s Daughters is a case in point. In 1976, Dr. Thornton was working her grueling shifts as an orthopedic resident and the New York Times had just featured her in an article about the growing number of women OB/GYNs.
“Then, one day, Mommy said to me, ‘It sure would be nice to have a book about our family in the library, so that other people can see what we accomplished,’” she recalls. “I told her I was a little busy delivering babies.” Dr. Thornton didn’t give it another thought until six months later, when her mother died suddenly. From then on, her mission became to write that book. “I told myself, ‘As God is my witness, I will not go out of this life until there is a book in the library.’”
It would take 18 years. She found a collaborative writer, but publishers seemed uninterested in the story of a black family that didn’t include drug use and jail time. “One editor told us that if Daddy had been a pimp with six prostitutes, they’d be interested,” Dr. Thornton says. Finally, a small publisher, Birch Lane Press, bought the manuscript for $5,000, and released it as a young adult title.
The book languished, so Dr. Thornton hired her own publicist. Reviews in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal followed, along with a spot on the Oprah Show. Little by little, the book became a bestseller.
In Something to Prove, Dr. Thornton weathers sexist bosses, rampant cronyism, and patients who assume she is a member of the housecleaning staff when she enters their hospital rooms. In 1982, after she and Shearwood had completed a two-year stint at the U.S. Navy Hospital in Bethesda, she applied to Cornell Medical Center, which was looking for a director of clinical services at its maternity hospital. Dr. Thornton was hired without an interview, and her new boss, a South African physician, was quite surprised when she showed up for her first day of work, “the only black person in sight.”
It was show time. She turned a dingy sub-basement clinic into a cheerful, successful practice and helped to pioneer chorionic villus sampling, now a less-invasive alternative to the later developed amniocentesis.
Dr. Thornton spent the next 10 years in high-level positions at two New York hospitals, but the pace was getting to her. In 2006, after delivering more than 5,000 babies, Dr. Thornton, one of only 1,500 maternal-fetal specialists in the country, decided to give retirement a try. “I was tired.” It did not go well. “I don’t know how the ‘Real Housewives’ justify their existence,” she says. “I need to be productive.” So when Westchester Medical Center offered her the part-time position, she took it. While she still lives in New Jersey, three days a week, Dr. Thornton drives her “bucket-list car”—a Cadillac XLR hard-top convertible in lipstick red—across the George Washington Bridge to the hospital. “It’s a good fit.”
It’s time for Dr. Thornton to head back to New Jersey, but not before sharing a few more words of wisdom from her dad.
“For a woman in a male-dominated profession, some doors were not open to me. And if you’re black, forget it. My father would say, ‘It’s gonna be closed, so what are you gonna do about it? Go around the back, see if you can get in that way. That one’s locked? Go around to the side, see if there’s a window open. If not, go up on the roof, see if you can get in that way. But never give up. Because the only person that can stop you is you. Nobody else.’”
Ossining resident Dana White, a new fan of the Thornton Sisters, profiled the CEO of the National Audubon Society for the February issue.