DR. YVETTE FAY FRANCIS-MCBARNETTE, GROUNDBREAKING DOCTOR
Dr. Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette, a longtime Oak Bluffs summer resident known for her groundbreaking work in treating sickle cell anemia, died peacefully in Alexandria, Va. on the afternoon of March 28, surrounded by her loved ones. She was just weeks from her 90th birthday.
Born in Jamaica in 1926 to Clarence and Sarah Francis, Dr. Francis immigrated to the United States as a young child with her parents and became an American citizen. She grew up in Harlem, New York city, where she attended St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. There she married Olvin McBarnette, her husband of 60 years, and together they raised their six children in Queens.
In the early 1970s, she purchased her summer home in Oak Bluffs, where she vacationed with her family every summer. Her children and grandchildren continue to vacation annually in Oak Bluffs.
Dr. Francis excelled in her educational pursuits. She attended Hunter College in New York city, graduating magna cum laude at just 17 years old. She then earned a master’s degree in chemistry, graduating with honors from Columbia University. Next she entered the Yale School of Medicine as the second African American woman ever accepted into the program. She earned her doctorate in 1950.
Dr. Francis was a pediatrician with a clinical specialty in hematology. Her focus was sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder affecting primarily people of African and Mediterranean descent. In 1966, she launched the Foundation for Research and Education in Sickle Cell Disease to promote testing, research, public education and patient services. Dr. Francis’s work came to influence national policy when she was invited by the Nixon administration to be a member of an advisory committee on sickle cell anemia. Soon after, the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act of May 1972 was signed.
Dr. Francis owned and operated the St. Albans Family Medical Center in Queens and she was the director of the Sickle Cell Clinic in Jamaica Hospital, also in Queens. She received numerous awards and accolades for her service to her patients and the community.
Known as Fay to her friends and family, she enjoyed singing, playing the piano, and competing in bridge tournaments at her summer getaway on Martha’s Vineyard. She was a lifelong learner who in her mid-70s took philosophy classes in the graduate program at Hunter College. In 2003, she and her husband moved from New York to Virginia to be near their grandchildren. She was deeply religious. and enjoyed Bible study and singing in the choir at the Episcopal chapel of Goodwin House, the retirement community where she lived with her husband.
Dr. Francis leaves behind to cherish her memory her loving husband Olvin McBarnette; her children Bruce, Camilla, Yvette, Elayne Sara, Ellen and Andrea; her grandchildren Nettie McMiller, and Baily and Taylor Moore; her brother Mac Francis; and numerous nephews, nieces, extended family and friends.
Her memorial service will be held on April 30 in Alexandria, Va.
YVETTE FAY FRANCIS-MCBARNETTE, WHO BROKE BARRIERS IN MEDICINE AND RACE
The second black woman to enter the School of Medicine became a pioneer in sickle cell disease.
A medical student in a time charged with racial tension in America, Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette, M.D. ’50, echoes black Yalies before her who consistently reported getting along well with their white classmates. “We were a close-knit, supportive group,” she said.
Perhaps this atmosphere motivated a 22-year-old Fay Francis, as she was known, to write a letter to the Pittsburgh Courierduring her second year of medical school. “I have been urging all the prospective [black] medical students I know to apply,” she wrote, “but most [feel] it would be a waste of time. This is not true.” Francis-McBarnette concluded that as long as blacks were not represented in top schools, “the number of Negro doctors and nurses [would continue] decreasing.”
The daughter of college-educated schoolteachers who emigrated from Jamaica, Francis-McBarnette always knew that she would go to college. After skipping several grades in school, she enrolled at Hunter College when she was just 14 and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in three and a half years. At 18, Francis-McBarnette was too young for medical school and unable to get a job in a lab in New York City. Those jobs were reserved for white applicants, she was told. So she got a master’s in chemistry at Columbia instead. In 1946, at the age of 19, she was the second black woman to enroll at the Yale School of Medicine.
Despite her letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, Francis-McBarnette had no involvement in the civil rights movement. But in the medical profession, she broke barriers for women and blacks. While running a private pediatric practice, directing a clinic at Jamaica Hospital in Queens, and completing a second residency in internal medicine, Francis-McBarnette raised six children with her husband of 54 years, Olvin McBarnette, now a retired district superintendent for the New York City Board of Education. Among her children are three attorneys and a schoolteacher.
In medicine, Francis-McBarnette broke barriers for sufferers of sickle cell disease. She began using prophylactic antibiotics 15 years before their effectiveness was confirmed by an article inThe New England Journal of Medicine.
Francis-McBarnette first heard of sickle cell disease and its mostly black victims in the 1950s during her pediatrics residency at Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital. The hospital, which closed its doors in 2009, served the city’s black population, which was increasing due to the migration of African Americans from the South to the North. “I went home and tested all my relatives [for sickle cell],” she said.
In 1966, in private practice and an attending pediatrician at Jamaica Hospital, she launched the Foundation for Research and Education in Sickle Cell Disease with colleagues who included Doris Wethers, M.D. ’52. The foundation was instrumental in opening the first comprehensive sickle cell clinic of which Francis-McBarnette became director.
The pediatrician was soon invited to Washington to sit on an advisory committee before then-President Richard M. Nixon signed the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act in May 1972.
Since 1970 she had been successfully treating sickle cell children with prophylactic antibiotics. “I stayed on antibiotics for 35 years,” said Cassandra Dobson, D.N.Sc., a lifelong patient of Francis-McBarnette, who started on the regimen in 1971. “If I hadn’t, I would’ve died.”
And by 1970, five years before New York State mandated the screening of infants for sickle cell disease, Francis-McBarnette’s organization had already screened some 20,000 schoolchildren. That year in the May issue of the Journal of the National Medical Association, the doctor called for treatment that would allow those with sickle cell disease “to pursue their education, earn a living, and rear their families.” These endeavors were unheard-of for sickle cell patients, who barely lived to adolescence when Francis-McBarnette started practicing.
“I was told I was going to die at 5, at 10, at every milestone of my life,” Dobson said.
On the pediatrician’s then-controversial advice that her patients do anything they wanted to do, including bear children, Dobson had children, became a registered nurse, and earned her doctorate in nursing. Francis-McBarnette recently attended Dobson’s 50th birthday party, where Dobson said in a speech that she wouldn’t be celebrating this milestone if it weren’t for “Dr. Francis.”
When Francis-McBarnette’s first patients lived beyond age 18, Francis-McBarnette referred them to adult doctors, but they refused to go. “They don’t know anything about me. I’m staying right here with you,” her patients told her. So in 1978, at age 52, Francis-McBarnette completed a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in hematology at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center so that she could continue to care for her former pediatric patients.
Like Dobson, Maureen Michel has also been a lifelong patient of Francis-McBarnette. When she was visiting New York from Haiti in 1975, Michel, then 9 years old, was hospitalized. Now 44, Michel saw Francis-McBarnette until the doctor retired in 2000. Today, in the course of searching for a new doctor, Michel still meets many who do not know what sickle cell disease is. “My whole life, every time I go to the emergency room, I call Dr. Francis. ‘Do you think this medication is good for me?’ When she retired, I didn’t know if I would ever find any doctor like her, and to tell you the truth, I never have.”
ARTHUR ANDERSON, VOICE OF LUCKY CHARMS LEPRECHAUN