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Dr. Doris Wethers, 91, on Front Lines Against Sickle Cell, Dies

Dr. Doris L. Wethers, who broke racial barriers in the medical world before gaining renown for research and advocacy that helped lead to mandatory testing of all newborns for sickle cell anemia, died on Jan. 28 in Yonkers. She was 91.

The cause was complications of a stroke, her daughter-in-law Lisa Booker said.

In 1965, Dr. Wethers became the first black chief of a medical department at a New York City voluntary, or private nonprofit, hospital when she was named director of pediatrics at Knickerbocker Hospital in West Harlem.

Knickerbocker, which had a history of refusing to admit black patients, was renamed Arthur C. Logan Memorial Hospital before it closed in 1979.

She was later director of pediatrics from 1969 to 1974 at Sydenham Hospital (which was shuttered in 1980) and then, until 1979, at St. Luke’s Hospital Center (now Mount Sinai St. Luke’s). She became St. Luke’s first black attending physician in 1958.

ImageMembers of the Yale School of Medicine’s graduating class of 1952. Dr. Wethers, standing in the front row, was the third black woman to graduate from the school.CreditHarvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University School of Medicine

Dr. Wethers opened sickle cell anemia programs at all three hospitals, conducted research and helped draft landmark legislation in New York to require screening of infants for the disorder. Over the course of her career at the hospitals, the average life expectancy of children born with sickle cell rose from about 18 to 50.

The increase was attributed largely to early detection, infection prevention through the use of penicillin and other breakthroughs that helped mitigate pain and prolong life.

Research by Dr. Wethers and her colleagues called greater attention to sickle cell anemia, an inherited genetic disorder that is often thought to affect only black people but in fact can also be found among those of Mediterranean, Southeast Asian, Caribbean, Central American and East Indian heritage.

People with this abnormality produce blood cells that are shaped like sickles or crescents. Because the cells are rigid, they can clog capillaries and deprive tissues of blood and oxygen, leading to organ damage, stroke, blindness, severe pain and death. There is still no cure, although bone marrow transplants involving stem-cells have proved successful in some experiments.

In 1987, Dr. Wethers was the chairwoman of a National Institutes of Health panel that recommended routine testing for newborn babies regardless of race or ethnicity. New York was the first state to mandate such testing, in 1975, and all states provided for universal screening by 2006.

ImageDr. Wethers at the Yale School of Medicine bicentennial celebration in 2011. A colleague called her “the consummate clinician and a fearless advocate for improved patient care.”CreditJohn Curtis, Yale University

“She was on the front line of patient care long before any federal funding for sickle cell disease,” said Dr. Clarice D. Reid, the former national director of the sickle cell disease program of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. “She played a key role in many of the clinical advances of the ′80s and ′90s.”

She added, in an email, “Dr. Wethers was the consummate clinician and a fearless advocate for improved patient care.”

Doris Louise Wethers was born on Dec. 14, 1927, in Passaic, N.J., to Dr. William and Lillian (Wilkinson) Wethers. Her father was a general practitioner who later had an office in Harlem; her mother was a teacher.

Her parents divorced when Doris was a young girl, and she moved to Washington Heights in Manhattan with her mother and sister. After graduating from George Washington High School, she earned a bachelor of science degree from Queens College, where she majored in chemistry.

“I’ve wanted to be a physician ever since I can remember,” she told the Gartner Pediatric History Center for an oral history in 2002. “When I was growing up my dolls were always in sick beds.”

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She added, “I’m sure a lot of it had to do with my father, because he was so beloved by all of his patients, and he obviously loved medicine.”

Doris Wethers was the third black woman to graduate, in 1952, from the Yale School of Medicine. The second, Dr. Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette, helped inspire Dr. Wethers’ interest in sickle cell disease, and they, with Lila A. Fenwick, later started the Foundation for Research and Education in Sickle Cell Disease. (Ms. Fenwick was the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Law School.)

After graduating from Yale in 1952, Dr. Wethers interned at the newly desegregated District of Columbia General Hospital, where, she recalled, she seemed to be less threatening to white people as a black person because she was a woman.

“It was one of the few times, except in grammar, where two negatives make a positive,” she told New York Magazine in 1973.

Because that Washington hospital was not yet willing to accept a black person as a medical resident, though, Dr. Wethers began practicing at Bellevue Hospital in New York. She was also a clinical professor at what is now known as the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. She retired in 1999 as director of St. Luke’s sickle cell program.

Dr. Wethers married Dr. Garvall H. Booker, a dentist, in 1953. He died in 1996. She is survived by their two sons, Buddy and David Boyd Booker; and three grandchildren. She lived in Hudson Heights, in Upper Manhattan, and died in a hospital in Yonkers.

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