Like-Minded Women Taught Gene-Ann Polk, MD, to Lead
In an illustrious career in pediatrics and public health, Dr. Polk became a leader for black women in medicine.
Gene-Ann Polk, MD, was one of four daughters of a successful African-American physician. She benefited from the wisdom of a strong, wise mother. Her godmother was the only woman in her medical school class, and when she herself enrolled in medical school, she chose an all-woman institution.
In an illustrious career in pediatrics and public health, Dr. Polk became a leader and an advocate for black women in medicine.
Strong Female Mentors
It all began with mentors, starting with her mother, who encouraged her daughters to push back against racial segregation by being direct and hands-on, an approach she would embrace throughout her life.
“ If you went to the movies, they tried to put you in the balcony, but my mother said, ‘No, you don’t sit in the balcony. You sit downstairs,’” she recalled. “That’s what we told the manager. We sat where we wanted to sit.”
Her godmother, Myra Smyth Kearse, MD, was the only woman in her class at Howard Medical School when she received her degree in 1925. She describes her as a “little lady with a whole lot of energy and stamina” and said she was influenced greatly by her godmother’s perseverance and determination.
A Supportive Environment
Polk attended Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (now Drexel), then a single-sex medical school. She thrived in the supportive environment of like-minded women.
“Women’s [Medical College] was a protective environment, that’s the first thing I should say, and they let it be known that, ‘We want to see you graduate and we want to be fair about it,’” she recalled. “I had heard from some of the other schools that the ‘Look to your right, look to your left. One of you is not going to be here next year,’ that kind of story. Never heard that at Women’s Med. It always was, ‘We want you to succeed.’”
Dr. Polk married an oral surgeon. She found that her status as a woman married to a successful man had an unexpected negative impact on her practice. Many patients did not pay her.
“I had one woman tell me, ‘Oh, well, I put your bill on the bottom because I know you have a husband who can support you,’” she said.
A Leader in Harlem
At Harlem Hospital, she assumed the role of chief of Pediatric Ambulatory Care in 1968. She was an accessible leader, nurturing the staff by making colleagues feel heard and appreciated.
“I had frequent staff meetings, gave everybody a chance to express themselves, tell me what they needed, and I tried to take care of their concerns,” she said.
She pioneered the concept of taking primary care to people who need it, setting up clinics throughout Harlem. She scouted locations, and then worked closely with an architect to design the spaces. That proactive approach enabled her to put the project on the fast track, opening the clinics in only one year.
Dr. Polk also worked directly with a computer expert, who computerized the clinic records, enabling Harlem Hospital to submit statistics with their reports to the Federal government, a method of reporting that was quickly adopted by other systems.
In her later years, she battled cancer but she never stopped working to improve life for people in Harlem, becoming a strong advocate for the arts. Dr. Polk died at age 88 in 2015.