College dean, physician
Dr. PonJola Coney serves as the dean of the School of Medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Meharry is a respected professional training ground among historically black colleges in America, and Coney is one of just a handful of women to head a medical school in the United States.
Born on New Year's Eve in 1951, Coney was one of seven children born to Lethell and Dorothy Williams, a farm family in rural Pike County, Mississippi. She attended all-black schools in the community, during an era when public schools were still segregated. Her high school was located in nearby Magnolia, and during her senior year she began driving the school bus for the 30-mile round trip. "I actively sought that job," she laughed in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB ). "It was a way to make some money that didn't interfere with any of the class schedule." Her science teacher, Charles Andrews, was an important early influence in her life, Coney recalled to CBB, and "actually identified me early on, and decided that I could have a career in medicine, in the sciences.… He ultimately served as the superintendent of the school district there, and his wife, who also taught me—I'm her namesake, they served as my godparents—and actually helped to direct and support my career."
After graduating from high school in 1969, Coney went on to Xavier University of Louisiana, a Roman Catholic institution in New Orleans with a largely black student body. "I grew up Southern Baptist," she explained to CBB. "They didn't convert me! But I went to school there because it was a great school and it had an excellent program in what I chose to major in college, which is medical technology." After she graduated, Coney returned to Mississippi, and took a job at the University Medical Center in Jackson. "I was a medical technologist in one of the acute-care laboratories there, and had the opportunity to interact with a lot of the medical students and residents and interns in training," she told CBB. "I became very close to one of the black medical students who, after several months said to me that I really should attend medical school. And I asked him why, and he said, because you're intelligent, and you can do it. And that was the first time anybody'd ever said that to me."
Coney was accepted into medical school at the University of Mississippi in Jackson, which was her first real experience at an integrated educational institution. She was one of just 15 black students out of her class of 150. "I had a very good experience in medical school," she told CBB. "I think everyone was a little bit tentative in the first few months, but the students in the class were very gracious, and were very kind and considerate toward us, and it actually ended up being a good experience.… We had one or two instructors who were derogatory and denigrating, but that was responded to by the students as well as the administration, and it sort of cleared up. Those incidences were very far [between] and few."
Coney graduated from medical school in 1978, and decided to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology. She completed her residency at the University of North Carolina, and did a research fellowship in her chosen area of expertise, reproductive endocrinology, at historic Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. Intrigued by recent advances in reproductive medicine, Coney became an infertility specialist and was hired by the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City as a reproductive endocrinologist. She set up the school's first infertility program in 1984. This was just six years after the world's first test-tube baby had been born in the United Kingdom, in a process known as in vitro fertilization. At the time, this and other new scientific advances were helping couples conceive children. Coney went on to set up the infertility program at the University of Nebraska, and her facility helped to pave the way for that state's first in vitro birth. She then spent time at the University of Arizona, also launching its advanced fertility clinic. "It was very interesting, very exciting, and really encompassed the major part of gynecology," she told CBB. "It also had a strong research component to it, so that's what attracted me."
In 1995 Coney became department chair for obstetrics and gynecology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield. She left after seven years to head Meharry Medical College's School of Medicine.
Founded in 1876 as the Medical Department of Central Tennessee College of Nashville, Meharry had a long and illustrious history in training African-American physicians, dentists, and other health care professionals. It is a leading research facility for medical issues that disproportionately affect the African-American community, such as sickle cell anemia, and strives to send its graduates into areas, both rural and urban, that have been traditionally underserved by health care professionals.
Coney is the dean of the medical school and also holds the title of senior vice president for health affairs at Meharry. Despite her busy schedule, she continues to teach classes and maintain a small practice. "I still see patients every week," she told CBB. "I stopped delivering babies a couple of years ago…but I still work with infertility patients. I work with a lot of menopausal patients, and I still teach. And I probably won't ever stop doing that." In her spare time, she enjoys outdoor activities, woodworking, and golf.
In 2003 Coney returned to her alma mater at the University of Mississippi to deliver the commencement address for the Medical Center graduates that year. She is its first alumnus to head a U.S. medical school, and she is proud that it is a historically black institution she leads. "Meharry has a very distinguished history, in that it has for a long time had a single mission that it has adhered to—and that's training minority health professionals," she told CBB. "I wanted to be a part of doing that, which I think is critical in shaping the future of medicine, particularly for minority populations in this country. And this gave me an opportunity to do that, one that I didn't have in majority institutions. So that's really what attracted me here. And that's what keeps me here."
At a Glance …
Born on December 31, 1951, in McComb, MS; daughter of Lethell (a farmer) and Dorothy (a homemaker) Williams. Education: Xavier University of Louisiana, BS, 1973; University of Mississippi Medical School, MD, 1978. Religion: Southern Baptist.
Career: Worked as a medical technologist, c. 1973-74; completed residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill Hospital; fellowship at Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia; University of Oklahoma, researcher, professor, physician, and head of its first reproductive fertility program, 1984-87; University of Nebraska, researcher, professor, physician, and head of its first reproductive fertility program, 1987-90; University of Arizona, researcher, professor, physician, and head of its first reproductive fertility program, 1990-95; Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, department chair, obstetrics and gynecology; Meharry Medical College, dean of the School of Medicine, and senior vice president for health affairs, 2002–.
Addresses: Office— Dean's Office, Meharry Medical College, 1005 Dr. D.B. Todd, Jr. Blvd., Nashville, TN 37208-3599.
Ebony, October 2003.
Tennessee Tribune, June 6, 2003.
"UMC Commencement Features Alum Coney, Thanks Conerly," Mississippi Hospital Association, www.mhanet.org/i4a/pages/headlinedetails.cfm?id=364&archive=1 (July 7, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Dr. PonJola Coney on October 5, 2004.