University honors the first black woman to earn a medical degree from KU
August 24, 2018
By Greg Peters
Amidst the sea of racial tension that swirled about the country during the Civil Rights Era, a ripple began on the University of Kansas Medical Center campus, the consequences of which rose into a wave of social change whose effects are still washing over the practice of medicine today.
In 1958, the late Marjorie Cates became the first black woman to graduate from the University of Kansas School of Medicine. Some 60 years later she is being honored by the university with an academic society dedicated in her name. The Cates Society was officially unveiled during a ceremony Aug. 23 in the Health Education Building. The new society replaces the Wahl Society, which has been retired by the university.
"Dr. Marjorie Cates was a remarkable doctor and human being," said Robert Simari, M.D., executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center. "As the first black woman to graduate from the School of Medicine, she was a pioneer in the truest sense. We owe a great debt to Dr. Cates for her courage and fortitude to stand up for what was right at a time when it was most difficult. It's an honor to have her name associated with one of our academic societies."
"My mother would be delighted, humbled and extremely honored, but at the same time very excited to have KU Medical Center name an academic society after her," said Cates' only child, Lauren Cates Ransome. "Receiving recognition for her hard work would be considered a rare distinction for someone like her who spent a lot of her time avoiding the limelight. She did not seek recognition. She didn't want to heal and do all that so she could see her name in lights. She did it because she felt that was what she was meant to do."
Kansas City roots
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, the youngest of Anna and Clarence Cates' 10 children, Marjorie grew up surrounded by a large and loving family where education was always important. Even though neither of her parents had more than a sixth-grade education, they made sure their children appreciated learning. Not surprisingly, most of the Cates children completed at least high school, and in the case of Marjorie and her nearest sibling by age, Charles Herbert "Herby" Cates, both became doctors.
After graduating from Sumner High School, Cates attended Kansas State College (now Kansas State University) where she received a bachelor's degree in 1952 in home economics and medical technology. She then took pre-medicine coursework at Minnesota General Hospital and the University of Minnesota.
In 1954, the year the landmark Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education decision was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, Cates became only the second black woman to be admitted to the KU School of Medicine. She was preceded by Geraldine Mowbray, M.D., who in 1937 had been allowed to complete her first two years of medical school on the Lawrence campus, and then - as was the custom at KU at the time for black students in the KU School of Medicine - she transferred elsewhere to complete her degree.
It had been a mere 17 years since the first black man graduated from the KU School of Medicine, and despite its history of not welcoming blacks beyond their first two years of medical school, Cates still chose KU. As her daughter explained, the decision was made in part because of proximity to the medical center campus and in part because she knew KU had the kind of education she needed to reach her goal of becoming a doctor.
"Sometimes in life you have to jump off the cliff not knowing if the parachute is going to open," Ransome explained. "My mom had in her mind that she wanted to attend medical school, and that's what she did, without hesitation. That's not to say she didn't encounter a great deal of resistance. Just because it was a challenge did not mean it was something that could not be overcome. If it was something that she wanted to be accomplished, then it would be accomplished. I don't know anything that my mom set her mind out to do that she did not accomplish."
Cates' medical school classmates remember her fondly. But even in those days she carried the banner of equal rights in the treatment of all patients regardless of race or gender, and as a natural leader she wasn't afraid to enlighten her peers.
"Marjorie was an amazing young woman," recalls Donna Steeples Childs, M.D., one of her medical school classmates. "She was smart, no-nonsense, practical and open. One of my favorite stories was when she insisted that I come with her to the E building (Eaton) where all the 'Negro' patients were hospitalized at the time. Only then did I realize the difference they experienced compared to the white patients."
Making her way in medicine
After graduating from the KU School of Medicine in 1958, Cates served an internship at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington D.C., and then completed her residency at D.C. General Hospital. She then honed her knowledge of hematology by doing post-doctoral work for three years, splitting time between the New England Medical Center, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. While at NEMC, Cates collaborated on an article about the inheritance of Hemoglobin H disease that was printed in 1966 in the Blood, the official journal of the American Hematological Society.
Generally speaking, racism and male chauvinism were more blatant in those days, and the landscape of the medical profession was dominated by men, most of whom had white skin. But Cates had a confidence and ease about her that went a long way toward advancing her career. She seemed to have a sense about when and how to stand up for herself when the time was right.
Ransome remembers one such incident when her mom was an intern. "When she entered a patient's room he said, 'I don't want a black doctor, I want a white doctor ... and, I want a white, male doctor.'" "My mom stood her ground and told him, 'I am the only white, male doctor that you're going to get to see at this time.'"
Cates went on to have a distinguished career in both public and private practice. She is remembered as much for her abilities as a physician as her compassion for all her patients. She taught hematology at Howard University, where she also served as associate director of its Sickle Cell Center. She later became director of health services for the United States Department of the Interior.
In 1974, Cates became the chief medical officer at the D.C. Health Department North Area Health Center, and a year later published "Sickle cell disease, a bibliography." She also spent time doing interviews to promote awareness nationwide about the dangers of sickle cell disease.
"She was very passionate about her work with sickle cell disease," Ransome said. "That was always personal with her. She was just so humble and unpretentious. That's what she was born to do. She was born to be a physician. She was born to nurture. She was born to help people recover and do research."
At home, however, it was family first for Cates. She had a knack for putting the frustrations of office politics behind her to just be mom for a daughter who adored her. And what a house it was to grow up in. Ransome said as child their kitchen would be filled with women drinking coffee and "chit-chatting" about their personal lives. It wasn't until years later that she learned that her mom's friends were a group of women each important in her own right, including one of the first black judges in Baltimore, the founder of Blacks in Government and two significant contributors to the field of psychiatry.
For Cates it was all about giving her daughter the best upbringing she could as a single parent with a demanding career. She loved music and boxing, talking with friends, and making what she considered the world's best chili.
While Cates was dying from lung cancer in 1991, she swore the hospital staff to secrecy throughout her illness, so that Lauren would not be distracted from getting her degree. But when Ransome caught wind of how dire her mother's condition was, she sent a note to the administration at Spelman College telling them that being with her mother was the most important thing, and she'd take whatever grades they decided to give her.
'We need to keep striving'
The Cates Society began with a grassroots effort by a small group of medical students in early 2017 after watching a presentation featuring Cates that was produced by Tequilla Manning, M.D., who was a student at the time.
"The unveiling of the Cates Society comes at a perfect time when the medical school is experiencing new leadership and moving towards an identity of solidarity and appreciation of individual differences and not just cultural awareness," Manning said recently. "We are a family. One that celebrates its past and looks forward to its future."
For weeks after the presentation the members of the group, which included Bahar Barani, the president of Wahl Society, struggled with the school's history of segregation and the need for the institution to not only better reflect its current population by highlighting more people of color such as Cates and their significant contributions, but also by creating a community that embraces diversity in all forms. Rayyan Kamal, a third-year medical student who served as one of the speakers for the students, said the group was united behind a shared belief that the time was right for change and they deftly navigated the headwinds of detractors while eloquently negotiating the ins and outs of university bureaucracy, until what began as a notion came to fruition with Cates being named as the first honoree.
"My mom would feel greatly honored, and hope they understand the great weight that is on their shoulders," Ransom said. "Yes, a society is being named after her, but they now carry the weight. They now have a path in life. They now need to continue the work. As humble as my mother was, I think she would say thank you, but this is in your name. Hopefully I opened some doors so that you have an easier time doing all that you want to do in the field of medicine."
"Dr. Cates' daughter echoes the conversations I've had with many of my peers during this process," Barani said. "The changes can't stop here. We always have to question ourselves and try to improve access to medical education and medicine as a whole. We need to keep striving to make that a reality."