Ellamae Simmons – Trailblazing African-American Physician

posted on February 3, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


overcome-coverOvercome: My Life in Pursuit of a Dream

Ellamae Simmons, MD, with editorial collaboration by Rosemarie Robotham
Mill City Press, Minneapolis, 2016
Available via Google Books | Amazon

 

The arc of social justice relies on courageous individuals and Ellamae Simmons, MD, was one such individual. She was the first African-American woman to specialize in asthma, allergy, and immunology in the United States. She worked at Kaiser Permanente for 25 years, and to this day plays a central role in how Kaiser Permanente embraces diversity and inclusion.

Dr. Simmons’ new biography at the age of 97 is a valuable contribution to that history.  The book details her life and career, including graduating from Hampton (Virginia) nursing school in 1940, serving in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II, medical school at Meharry Medical College (Nashville) in 1954, and her Kaiser Permanente career.

Dr. Simmons’ chapter titled “The Interview” is about her coming to work at Kaiser Permanente during the summer of 1965. Dr. Simmons had been training in chest medicine at National Jewish Hospital in Denver, at which Irving Itkin, MD, was her supervisor and mentor:

When I told Dr. Itkin of my plan to move west at the end of my residency, he was full of advice. “If you’re going to California,” he told me, “there are only two places you should consider. One is the Scripps clinic in La Jolla in Southern California, and the other is Kaiser Permanente in Northern California. Now,” he continued, warming to the subject of my future training as an allergist, “Scripps is just another National Jewish. They write the same papers and conduct the same research. You’d basically be doing the same thing you did here.

At Kaiser, on the other hand, you’d round out your experience in a well-established outpatient allergy center, where asthmatics are well maintained on an established anti-allergenic regimen. And I recommend Ben Feingold, the chief of asthma-allergy at Kaiser. He’s a good allergist, does fine research. Of course, he’s difficult…. but I recommend you go there and learn everything he has to teach you about asthmatics whose condition is well controlled, who are ambulatory, who go to school or to work. After that you’ll be well set up to take care of anybody in this field.”

Ellamae Simmons school graduation Hampton nursing school, 1940, from Overcome book

Ellamae Simmons graduation Hampton nursing school, 1940, from Overcome

Dr. Simmons’ job interview with Ben Feingold, MD, has become legend in Kaiser Permanente history:

Dr. Ben Feingold sat back in his large bronze-studded black leather chair, scrutinizing me. He questioned me about my previous residencies, always calling me “Miss,” never “Doctor.” He asked me about my asthma-allergy fellowship, and more superficially about my chest medicine residency.

After about 30 minutes, he tented his fingers on his desk and said, “Well, I have my doubts about hiring anyone whom I have not trained, but please go out and see my secretary. We’ll have to continue this another day, as I have another meeting.” He told me to make an appointment with his secretary for the following Tuesday, which was five days away. I could ill afford the expense of additional nights at my hotel, plus meals, but I did not say this. Instead I made the appointment and spent the next few days exploring downtown San Francisco and biding my time.

I returned the following Tuesday for the continuation of our interview and entered Dr. Feingold’s office as scheduled. Again the department chief sat back in his chair and viewed me intently. He asked a few questions about specific allergic reactions and how they might be treated at the institution of my residency. I answered easily and in meticulous clinical detail. At last he said,

“Well, I see you know your stuff, but I’m afraid I cannot hire you, as I’ve never hired anyone whom I have not trained.”…

“Dr. Feingold,” I said, my voice steady, my gaze direct, “I’ve never applied for a job for which I was not fully qualified. In fact, I’ve usually been overqualified. So tell me, is the real reason you’ve decided not to hire me the fact that I’m black?”

She asked Dr. Feingold if there were any other black physicians at the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco hospital; it took him a while, but he finally remembered Granville Coggs, MD, a radiologist who’d joined the staff just a few months before. Dr. Simmons met with Dr. Coggs, and they shared experiences of racial discrimination pursuing their respective professions. She then returned to Dr. Feingold’s office, resigned to not getting the position.

Dr. Feingold didn’t respond at first. He just stared at me in that fixed way I was already becoming used to. I realized he was wrestling with a decision.

Finally, he spoke. “Stop by my secretary on your way out and sign your contract,” he said. “I’ll take you after all.”

Dr. Ella Mae Simmons, first black female physician in Northern CA

Dr. Ellamae Simmons, circa 1980

 

Among Dr. Simmons’ battles was that of housing discrimination. Even in the relatively progressive San Francisco Bay Area of the late 1960s, covenants and real estate practices perpetuated racially segregated neighborhoods.

This discrimination also was experienced by another early Kaiser Permanente physician, Eugene Hickman, MD. His unpublished memoir includes a chapter titled “House Hunting While Black”:

My major problem in Oakland was with housing…I would phone all numbers regarding places within a radius that would afford reasonable access to the hospital where I was going to work. I was up front with my racial identity, after which I would summarize my credentials, etc. The response was always the same: “I am very sure you would be a very desirable member of our community, but we promised our neighbors we would not rent or sell to Negroes.”

After several frustrating months, someone informed me of a place in Berkeley where I could go and apply for one of the homes that had been condemned to make way for the Grove-Shafter Freeway [California Highway 24]. We obtained an old house on 53rd St, near Children’s Hospital. I was then able to move our family here. Then we began the search for a permanent residence. My wife would go out with an agent during the day while I was working; the children were not yet in school. Some idiots frequently mistook my wife for a southern European. One agent…suggested that if I wanted to see the house, I should come around after dark.

And if that wasn’t discouraging enough, Dr. Hickman experienced discrimination about his choice of a job from an unexpected source. The Sinkler-Miller Medical Association in Oakland (named in honor of two outstanding black physicians) accepted him for membership, but insisted on characterizing him “as some sort of traitor to the black physician community” because of his affiliation with Kaiser Permanente.

 

Dr. Simmons’ personal story is a tribute to persistence and vision overcoming adversity. Although we have come a long way in building social justice, there is always more to do – and pioneers such as Dr. Simmons inspire and guide us.

 

Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/2l4yt05

 

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19 Responses to “Ellamae Simmons – Trailblazing African-American Physician”

  1. Stacy Young says:

    SO grateful to Dr. Simmons for sharing her life with us and giving us the foundation to carry it forward for many generations to come. I have the honor of caring for my grandmother who is just a couple years younger than Dr. Simmons, and as a grown woman with adult children of my own, I am still learning so much from her. I just purchased 1 of the 5 remaining “first print” books to present to my god-daughter on her 12th birthday next month. Thank you!!

  2. Jerome Blackwell says:

    This is very inspiring and is very relevant to me, being that I am a native of Colorado. She is well know amongst the African American community within Denver. I helped paint a mural of her in one of the area High Schools (Manual High School) in 2016. II’m thankful that Kaiser Permanente is telling the story of many of our African American leaders. We may be in different regions, but we all share the same struggles and should proclaim the successes. Thank You!!

  3. Alisha Goodbeer says:

    I am grateful to have the opportunity to work for an organization that honors our ancestors and inspires us every day as African-Americans. Dr. Ellamae Simmons, we salute and honor you!

  4. Cookie Murray says:

    Very uplifting and inspiring! I wish there was more to read.

  5. Leslie Greene says:

    I am so glad that I had the opportunity to meet her about 10 years ago. Her story is such an inspiration and amazing.

  6. Shonda webb says:

    Dr. Simmons story is very inspirational, and I’m so glad I took the time to read about one of our pioneering African American leaders from Kaiser Permanente. Thank you

  7. Donna Williams says:

    This was such an awesome read. We take for granted many liberties today, that other had to consume blood, sweat and tears for. I’m grateful for my pioneers and hope I will be able to leave a little something behind as well. If nothing else, lead by example.

  8. Minnie Williams says:

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story on a very remarkable woman. I will share with my children.

  9. Marcie Wyatt says:

    Thank you Dr. Simmons and Dr. Hickman for being trailblazers during your time. Awesome stories.

  10. Rose Anne A says:

    Thank you Kaiser for being a pioneer in diversity inclusion and telling the stories and struggles of black people in this country.
    Thank you Dr Simmons for not accepting the status quo. You are my hero.

  11. Anne Fete says:

    YES !!! Another article about trailblazing & historical practices at Kaiser Permanente. I will share this information and book title with many. I am SO PROUD TO BE A KAISER EMPLOYEE !!!

  12. kathinia says:

    THANK YOU””YOUR PURSUIT OF YOUR DREAM AND TRAILBLAZING FOR ALL PEOPLE OF COLOR MAKES ME SO PROUD. NEVER BACKING DOWN BUT STILL SHOWING YOUR EXPERIENCE AND WELL-ESTABLISHED TRAINING.

  13. Doree Morgan says:

    Thank you Dr. Simmons for sharing your life story. Clearly you are an outstanding, courageous and brave American. I wish I knew you. You make all Americans proud. God Bless You,

  14. Debra Kranyak says:

    Thank you for sharing this inspiring story! I am so glad her life has been documented and published, I cannot wait to read more of how she overcame and persevered in the face of adversity. Thank you Kaiser Permanente for being so much to so many, I am so proud to work for this organization.

  15. Sherri Johnson says:

    What an inspirational story. She never gave up no matter what. She pave the way for Minorities, Women, and African Americans. Thank you Kaiser to this story.

  16. Regina Allen says:

    This is such a wonderful story about over coming diversity and pushing forward for a dream. My parents always taught me to follow my dreams and never give up. I will buy several of these books to encourage others.

  17. Lorena Dean Halcromb says:

    Thank you for sharing this inspiring story of a true pioneer in history.

  18. Tanga says:

    Great reading that our organization shares an open vision of diversity. Glad to be a part.

  19. Jamillah Garrison says:

    Dr. Simmons and others like her, thank you for being a Change Agent, and sharing your story.

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