Since studying abroad in Vienna in 1967-68, Dr. Shirley Marks, MD, MPH, DLFAPA, went on to become the first Spelman College alumna, and the second African American woman, to graduate from Harvard Medical School.
A Year in Vienna
When Dr. Shirley Marks was selected for the prestigious Merrill Scholarship to study abroad, she didn’t hesitate to accept, even though it meant extending for a fifth year as an undergraduate. She was one of three Spelman College undergraduates selected that year for the scholarship created by Charles Merrill, Jr., son of the co-founder of Merrill Lynch, that has supported study abroad for students at historically black colleges and universities since the late 1950s.
As a biology major, Marks was directed to the IES Abroad Vienna program. The location was a good fit both personally and academically, despite the program’s focus on art history. “Prior to studying abroad I wanted to be a veterinarian and wanted to study pre-med. German was a requirement for being a science major and I knew there would be another African American female [Maxine Hayes] if I went to Vienna.” There were also four male Merrill Scholars from neighboring Morehouse College studying in Vienna that year. “This made the experience better, and socio-culturally, it helped since we had classes together,” remembers Marks.
Although the year in Vienna exposed Marks to courses in art history and architecture vastly different to anything she had seen or studied before, her experience was defined by events back home where the Civil Rights Movement was gripping the country. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The news came as a shock to the cohort of Merrill Scholars studying together in Vienna. “All of us were from Atlanta-based schools and it just devastated us,” says Marks. “MLK was a Morehouse graduate and our schools were across the street from each other. To this day, I can’t even make the connection to the destruction that occurred in Atlanta at that time because we were away in Europe. Social media wasn’t around then. Television wasn’t there. We relied mostly on radio and print media.” Then in June, while traveling in Turkey, one of the locals informed Marks that Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated. “Those two events just about blurred anything that was memorable about my time in Vienna,” she recalls.
Culture Shock at Harvard
After returning home, Marks finished up her final year at Spelman and was accepted into Harvard Medical School—one of only 16 African American students in that class and the only African American woman. “When I got there, I knew no one. It was a real cultural adjustment to make—not only being female but being the only black female. I was really isolated…it was difficult socially, culturally, and academically.” But her year abroad helped her adjust to the challenges of entering a primarily white, male campus. “Having the opportunity to go to Harvard was a transformational culture shock and probably would have been more difficult had I not been exposed to the year in Vienna.”
Academically, Marks’ interest in medicine evolved and led her to psychiatry. Although it wasn’t her first choice, she says it fit her personality. “I’m a big talker. I am a leader. I knew I had the ability to talk and listen. When I entered Harvard, I thought I was going to go into pediatrics. But I thought there was something about the emotional side of the patient that was being overlooked, and I thought I had a unique bedside manner with the patient.”
Marks also mentored aspiring medical students through her involvement in the Student National Medical Association as Regional Director of the New England area. “There was a huge uprising when MLK was assassinated and one of the things that happened in response was that universities started looking to uplift the situation for African Americans in appreciation for ‘I Have a Dream.’ One of the ways to fulfill that was through education.” During the summer, Marks traveled with faculty, fellows, residents, and other medical students from Tufts, Boston University, and Harvard to encourage African American students to apply to their medical schools. Her presence alone sent a powerful message to other females. “They saw me and they thought, ‘Well if you can do it, well, I can too.’ ”
In 1973, Marks broke racial and gender barriers by becoming the first Spelman College alumna, and only the second female African American, to graduate from Harvard Medical School—23 years after the first. “I see myself as a pioneer,” says Marks. “Harvard Medical School was founded in the 1700s and had former slaves, black males, Morehouse graduates, but the first African American female was admitted the year I was born.” At that time, she continues, “there was a bias in the medical community that medicine was primarily a field for men…so I consider myself a trailblazer. The year after me, there were three Spelman women admitted to Harvard.” Despite the challenges she says, “It was an experience I would not trade because it has opened so many doors and opportunities for me.”
After medical school, Marks received her Masters of Public Health in Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health and completed her residency at Harvard Affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. Marks returned to her home state of Texas where she taught at Baylor College of Medicine and simultaneously launched a successful career as a board certified psychiatrist. “I did a combination of private practice, solo, and group practice for 25 years,” says Marks. She also served at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston in a variety of positions, including Director of Outpatient Drug Treatment and later Chief of Psychiatry at the West Texas VAMC. Marks retired from the VA in 2010.
Throughout her career, Marks has worked to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and advocated for parity in mental health treatment and access. She has also been an advocate for women’s issues, particularly to stop violence against women. In 2000, she received the Service Award from the National Medical Association on Concerns of Women Physicians in recognition of her work in founding a women’s program for trauma recovery in Houston, Texas, for women who have been physically or sexually abused, or neglected. In 2002, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Spelman College.
Despite the awards and recognition, Marks says, “I think my greatest achievement is working one-on-one with individuals. Just helping them get better and seeing their progress with life’s challenges is really, really heartwarming. I know I am a good clinician and have seen many successes with the persons I have treated.” It’s when the families and spouses of those she has treated return to thank her that she knows she has truly made a difference.
Although Marks is now retired, she continues to work on projects and attend psychiatric conferences to keep up-to-date in the field. In 2013, she returned to Vienna for the first time since studying abroad to attend the World Psychiatric Association’s Annual Meeting. And, for the past two years, she has traveled to Nigeria with a team of clinicians to work with autistic children. Though she is trying to wind down, she lives a carpe diem lifestyle after having lost all of her family members, including her son. “I have the mindset that tomorrow is not promised, so I’m just trying to enjoy life.” And these days, she is doing just that. “I travel, travel, travel. I guess it all started back then with IES Abroad in Vienna.”