In America, we love to celebrate pioneers. Some of them are famous, like the frontiersman Daniel Boone, or the aviator Amelia Earhart. Other pioneers are not so well-known, but their influence is just as far-reaching and important. One of these unsung heroes is Mildred Jefferson, the first black female doctor to graduate from Harvard.
Born in 1927 in Pittsburg, Texas, she was the only child of Millard and Guthrie Jefferson. Her dad, Millard, was a minister, and her mom, Guthrie, was a schoolteacher. Mildred was a very precocious little girl. While she was still very young, she would often accompany the local doctor as he visited patients. “I would follow him around asking questions, and he would always answer,” she later said in an interview. “I said, ‘I want to be a doctor just like you,’ and he said ‘If you want to do that, you just go right ahead.’ ”
It didn’t take her long to start achieving her dream. At age 16, she graduated summa cum laude (with highest honors) from Texas College with a bachelor’s degree, and then earned her master’s at Tufts University. At age 20, she entered Harvard Medical School, graduating 4 years later in 1951.
After graduating, she became the first woman to serve as a surgical intern at Boston City Hospital, the first to serve at Boston University Medical Center, and the first to become a member of the Boston Surgical Society. But she didn’t limit herself to practicing medicine.
As if she didn’t have her hands full already, she also became a political activist. She became actively involved in the Republican party, and sought the Republican nomination for the Senate multiple times, though unsuccessfully. However, she was very influential in shaping Republican party policy, especially when it came to abortion, an issue she was passionate about. She felt that abortion was particularly harmful for minority groups, such as blacks. Ronald Reagan, a Democrat who, by the 1960s, had switched to the Republican party, credited her with changing his position on abortion from pro-choice to pro-life. Back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, neither party even had a position on abortion, although the majority of the American public was against the abortion mandate issued by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. In 1968, Jefferson helped to found the high-profile pro-life group National Right to Life. She became an outspoken voice against abortion, and was very persuasive, appearing on TV and radio. One of her viewers was Reagan, the governor of California at the time. A few years before, he had been persuaded to sign a bill making abortion legal to protect the life or health of the mother. To his disappointment, this loophole was widened to allow abortions for just about any reason. He wrote Jefferson, “You made it irrefutably clear that abortion is the taking of a human life. I’m grateful to you.”
With the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, the pro-life movement grew exponentially. Jefferson was elected vice chairman of the National Right to Life Committee that year, and chairman the year after that. In 1975, she became president of the organization, leading it until 1978. Until her death in 2010 at the age of 84, Jefferson traveled the country speaking in front of groups of all political persuasions about the abortion issue. Her personality, experience, and speaking ability gave her a tremendous impact.