Twice as Hard

Jasmine Brown is a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a masters degree in the history of science, medicine and technology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. As an undergraduate, she founded the Minority Association of Rising Scientists (MARS)—a reaction to the realization that though she was the only black student in her lab she was not the only black student at her university.

Brown is also the author of Twice as Hard: The Stories of Black Women Who Fought to Become Physicians, From the Civil War to the 21st Century. In some ways, Twice as Hard is the historical equivalent of MARS. By linking the experience of black women* as medical students and then as doctors across time, she creates a lineage of role models for students like herself. At the same time, she examines the double burdens of systemic sexism and racism through a very specific lens.

In Twice as Hard, Brown tells the stories of nine black women who became physicians in spite of both personal and social obstacles. The first, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, graduated from medical school in 1864—27 years after the first black man and 15 years after the first white woman obtained their degrees. The last, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, is only a few years older than I am—a fact that struck home how far we still have to go in combating systemic racism in our society. Brown details each woman’s challenges and celebrates her accomplishments. (I was particularly taken by the story of Dr. Dorothy Ferebee, who joined forces with other female students in her program across racial and religious divides to confront sexism.) She not only weaves in the historical context for each woman’s story, but compares it to the experiences of black women medical students today.

The end result is a powerful, and often enraging, account of social barriers and women who surmounted them—and a reminder that barriers still remain.

*Brown uses black with a lower case and African American interchangeably throughout the book to describe the women she writes about.

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