From the Apollo Theater to the surgical theater at Westchester Medical Center, Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, continues to add new chapters to her inspiring life story.
Yvonne S. Thornton, MD
The Thornton Sisters were a successful R&B band made up of six young African American women from Long Branch, New Jersey. There was Donna on tenor sax, Jeanette on guitar, Yvonne on alto sax, Linda on drums and lead vocals, and Rita on keyboards. The sixth member was their mother, Itasker, or Tass, as she was usually known, who played the stand-up bass, sang backup, and sewed the costumes. Their father, Donald, was the chauffeur, acoustical engineer, and mastermind of the operation. A high-school dropout who worked as a manual laborer to pull his family out of poverty, Donald was determined that each of his daughters would become a doctor because “black doctors didn’t dig ditches or clean houses.”
The idea for the band started in 1953, when Donna found a tiny toy saxophone in a Cracker Jack box. Each of the girls took up an instrument, and, in 1959, the Thornton Sisters came in second on Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour. Two years later, after winning six straight talent nights at the Apollo, they were rewarded with a week’s engagement, on the same bill as Fats Domino, Dee Clark, and Shep & the Limelites. That led to regular gigs playing Ivy League mixers and, every weekend for 13 years, Dad drove his girls up and down the East Coast, earning money to pay their college tuition. Boys were off limits; the only dates they had were marked on a calendar. He pushed his girls to excel at everything they did, which was basically limited to school and the band.
“You’re dark-skinned and ugly,” he told them bluntly. “No man’s gonna come along and offer to take care of you because you ain’t light-skinned. That’s why you gotta be able to look after yourselves. And, for that, you gotta be smart.”
Donald Thornton measured success not in record sales, but in academic degrees, and his girls delivered. All five of them attended Monmouth College. Jeanette got her EdD in counseling psychology and later an MD; she’s now a psychiatrist. Linda is a prosthodontic surgeon, and Rita has a law degree and a PhD in environmental science. Donna, who worked as a court stenographer, passed away in 1993 from complications from lupus. Betty, a foster child who did not perform with the band, is a nurse.
As for Yvonne, she was the first to become an MD, earning her degree from Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and receiving board certification in obstetrics. Born in 1947, she was named after one of the famous Dionne sisters, the first set of quintuplets known to survive past birth. (Her middle name is Shirley, as in Temple.) It was almost prescient, considering that she would become the first African American woman in the United States to be board-certified in maternal-fetal medicine, her second certification, the treatment of high-risk pregnancies. She has practiced and taught medicine at six hospitals in New York and New Jersey, and currently works as a part-time perinatal consultant at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla. But many know her best as the author of the memoir The Ditchdigger’s Daughters, which chronicled her family’s struggles and triumphs, particularly their years as the Thornton Sisters.
“We were like the chocolate Partridge Family,” she recalls with a throaty chuckle. “We traveled together, we laughed together, we cried together. We did everything together.”
Dr. Thornton has agreed to meet at the Public Health Center, one of the older red brick buildings that make up the New York Medical College. The complex huddles behind the monolithic hospital and the equally large, vaguely Disney-esque children’s hospital that is under construction next door. As the only Level I Trauma Center between Manhattan and Albany, WMC receives the sickest and most injured patients from around the lower Hudson Valley region. Pregnant women with health conditions that regional hospitals or clinics can’t handle are sent here.
“If it’s a complicated case, I’m there,” says Dr. Thornton.
She teaches medical students and residents on Mondays and Tuesdays and sees patients on grand rounds at the high-risk clinic on Thursdays. The rest of the week is open for Dr. Thornton to pursue her other passions, such as motivational speaking and competitive ballroom dancing, which she took up in the 1980s as a way to de-stress and lose weight. She also has been promoting her second memoir, Something to Prove: A Daughter’s Journey to Fulfill a Father’s Legacy. It describes three decades of juggling marriage, motherhood (her son, Shearwood, or “Woody,” 32, is a Harvard and Columbia P&S grad doing his neurosurgery residency; her 30-year-old daughter, Kimberly, is a Stanford grad in her first year of med school at Howard), and a career in the male-dominated world of academic medicine, delivering babies one minute and whipping up a last-second Halloween costume the next, all while grappling with workplace sexism and brutal office politics. Something to Prove is a having-it-all tale as told by a proud, intelligent woman of color who has taken her father’s philosophies to heart. She even begins each chapter with a typically pithy Donald Thornton aphorism such as, “Never dread anything. Just go ahead and do it.”
The Thornton Sisters in 1962
“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.