By Peter Pollack
Groundbreaking surgeon recognized for her efforts to bring women, minorities into the profession
To say that Claudia L. Thomas, MD, is qualified in the area of diversity might be a masterpiece of understatement. Dr. Thomas stands as the first female African-American orthopaedic surgeon in the United States. From her days organizing a sit-in at Vassar College to protest a lack of funding for a Black Studies program, to counseling and encouraging young orthopaedic residents, Dr. Thomas has championed the cause of diversity across all walks of her life. Yesterday, the AAOS honored Dr. Thomas for her efforts by presenting her with the 2008 AAOS Diversity Award.
Claudia L. Thomas, MD
“It is very possible that I would not be a practicing academic orthopaedic surgeon today, nor have as many superbly trained colleagues, if it were not for Dr. Thomas’ valiant and selfless efforts on our behalf,” wrote Jamil Jacobs-El, MD, in support of Dr. Thomas’ nomination for the award. “Dr. Thomas represents a rare and necessary entity to advance the cause of orthopaedic surgery training, beyond the scope of her own private practice, with a vision to the future of medicine.”
Following her own role model
Dr. Thomas credits her own entry into the medical field—orthopaedics in particular—to encounters with her family physician when she was just a child, and to her friendship with an orthopaedic resident she met while in medical school, who simply said to her, “You can do this.”
“It’s very special when you see someone who looks like you,” said Dr. Thomas. “[Someone] who resembles you doing something extraordinary. As a child, I had an African-American family physician, and she always had that starched white coat, with that stethoscope around her neck and a very proper manner. Had I not been exposed to her, who knows whether I would have thought that I could do this?”
In 1975, Dr. Thomas earned her medical degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She went on to an orthopaedic residency at Yale—where she was the first female orthopaedic resident—and a fellowship in trauma at the Shock Trauma Unit of the University of Maryland Medical School.
She served 5 years as a staff orthopaedic surgeon at West Baltimore Community Health Care Center, and accepted the position of assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Johns Hopkins. As part of her contract with the medical school, she insisted that part of her time would be spent providing orthopaedic care to Baltimore’s underserved African-American community.
In 1991, Dr. Thomas survived bilateral renal cell carcinoma when she received a donor kidney from her sister. She currently holds a teaching position with the Johns Hopkins department of orthopaedic surgery, and her autobiography God Spare Life was recently published by WME Books.
A model of determination
“She was determined to help minority women enter orthopaedics, and has been responsible for scores of minorities and women entering our profession,” said AAOS President James H. Beaty, MD. “Dr. Thomas has provided orthopaedic care to inner city residents, and has encouraged colleagues and protégés to do exactly the same. For the past 30 years, her tenacity and social activism have been responsible for extraordinarily diverse residency programs in institutions across the country.”
“If anyone, in my view, were to be a model of diversity in orthopaedic surgery,” wrote Dr. Jacobs-El, “it would be Dr. Thomas.”