History Makers, Game Changers

Black Surgeon Leaders
Photography by
University of Pittsburgh

Pitt Med alumni consistently break barriers, not only in research and clinical practice, but in leadership and other social contexts. In its winter 2022 edition, Pitt Med Magazine featured five prominent Black surgeons who have made remarkable contributions in medicine, were firsts in positions of academic leadership, or in the case of Velma Scantlebury (Fel ’88), were firsts in a major specialty. These stories represent just some of the accomplishments of Pitt Med's Black alumni. While we're promoting these success stories during Black History Month, we are reminded that achievements like these should be ones that attract our attention year round. 


Robert S.D. Higgins (Res ’90) blazed a trail at Johns Hopkins in 2017 when he was appointed the institution’s first African American director of the Department of Surgery. He says achieving that success only made him work harder: “It challenged me to elevate my game and prove I belonged in an environment like this.”

Higgins calls Pitt foundational for his success as a transplant surgeon.

Recently, he made a move to Boston. Higgins is the new president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and executive vice president of Mass General Brigham.

In September, KMarie King, (Res ’05) became the first Black woman to chair a department of surgery at an academic U.S. health sciences center; she’s at Albany Medical Center.  

King, who was born in Jamaica and grew up in Brooklyn, says she knew at age 8 the career path she would follow. “I looked up at the sky and imagined myself as an astronomer.” But the universe, she says, told her otherwise—that she would become a doctor.

At Pitt Med, says King, “What I really learned was what teamwork really looked like in medicine. That became a key to my success.”

Henri Ford (Fel ’89, ’93), dean of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, says the most significant moment in his career came in 2015, when he led a team that successfully separated conjoined twin girls in Ford’s native Haiti. He still keeps in touch with the family. The girls “are doing dance, ballet and they sing,” Ford says. “They are just a delight.”

Ford calls his Pitt training with Richard Simmons “nothing short of phenomenal,” adding, “Not only was he a role model, mentor and sponsor, he taught me how to think critically. The training I had in pediatric surgery was second to none.”

Barbadian-born Velma Scantlebury (Fel ’88), former associate director of Pitt’s kidney transplant program, became the nation’s first Black female transplant surgeon in 1989. After more than 2,000 transplant operations, she hung up her scrubs this year, retiring as director of the kidney transplant program at Christiana Care Transplant Program in Newark, Delaware.



Ala Stanford (Res ’04), who trained in UPMC’s general surgery residency, made a splash in June as a CNN Hero for founding the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, a mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccination service committed to combatting the pandemic in the hardest-hit areas of Southeastern Pennsylvania.   —Michael Aubele