Ross–Lee, Barbara

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Barbara Ross–Lee


Doctor of osteopathy, educator

Growing up in a working-class African-American family, Barbara Ross-Lee learned from personal experience about the ways that poverty and racial discrimination can affect health and access to health care. Early experiences with illness and death in her family made her believe that a career in medicine would both help her escape poverty and provide her with a way to help others. Told by a college adviser that women could not become doctors, Ross-Lee refused to give up her dream, overcoming many setbacks and detours on her road to a medical education. She not only became a successful doctor of osteopathy, but she also took an active role in working in the political arena to improve access to heath care for the poor and disadvantaged. In 1993 Ross-Lee shattered another barrier when she became the first African American woman dean of a U.S. medical school.

Born in 1942 in Detroit, Michigan, Ross-Lee was the first born of six children of Fred Ross Sr. and Ernestine Moten. As the eldest girl, young Barbara took on a protective role, caring for her younger sisters and brothers. At the age of ten she was forced to take on even more responsibility when her mother became sick with tuberculosis, a lung disease often associated with poverty. Fred Ross sent his children to stay with his parents in Alabama while Ernestine recovered from her illness, and for two years Ross-Lee filled the role of mother for her brothers and sisters. When the family was reunited, they went to live in low-income public housing in Detroit.

Ernestine's father had been a Baptist minister, and the whole Ross family took an active role in the church, singing in the church choir. Several of the children dreamed of careers in the entertainment industry, and Ross-Lee herself thought of becoming a dancer. Though her sister, Diana Ross, and two of her brothers did develop successful musical careers, Ross-Lee decided to put her energy into her education, focusing on her love of science.

Decided to Become a Doctor

When she was sixteen years old, Ross-Lee came close to death when doctors had difficulty stopping her bleeding during an operation to remove her tonsils. Along with her mother's health problems, this experience helped Ross-Lee decide that she wanted to be- come a doctor. She entered the premed program at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1960 and planned to major in anatomy in preparation for medical school. The premed counselor at Wayne State, however, did not believe that women should try to become doctors and advised Ross-Lee to change her plans. Based on her counselor's recommendation that teaching was a more appropriate career for a woman, Ross-Lee majored in biology and chemistry. She also married during her junior year, extending her college career for an extra year to graduate in 1965.

After earning her bachelor's of science degree at Wayne State, Ross-Lee joined the National Teacher's Corps, a government program that allowed her to teach in the Detroit public school system while earning her master's degree. She also had three children, the first of whom died in infancy of complications from German measles, renewing her desire to become a doctor to help prevent other such deaths.

After her graduation from Wayne State, Ross-Lee had worked for a time in the laboratory of an osteopathic hospital. Osteopaths are doctors who undergo medical training but focus on a holistic, or integrated, approach to healing. Osteopaths view the human body as an interconnected organism with the ability to heal itself. Unlike most medical doctors, they are trained to perform hands-on techniques to correct imbalances in the muscular and skeletal systems. They also learn modern medical techniques, but are more likely to become primary-care doctors than to specialize in one particular type of medical practice. Ross-Lee became very interested in osteopathy, and when Michigan State University opened a school of osteopathy in the suburban Detroit town of Pontiac, she was determined to go.

Became an Osteopath

Ross-Lee and her husband divorced, leaving her to raise her children as a single parent and in need of support in order to attend osteopathy school. She sold her house and moved back in with her mother, who helped care for her grandchildren so that her daughter could fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. In 1973 Ross-Lee graduated from Michigan State's College of Osteopathic Medicine and set up her own business as a private-practice doctor. As she had hoped to do when she was a girl, she operated a successful practice in Detroit's inner-city for ten years, helping many low-income people of color obtain good health care. She also married again, to Edmond Beverly, a superintendent in the Michigan public school system. Together, the two raised five children.

At a Glance …

Born Barbara Ross on June 1, 1942, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Fred Ross Sr. and Ernestine Moten; married, 1963 (divorced); married Edmond Beverly (a school superintendent), 197(?); children: five. Military service: U.S. Navy Medical Corps Reserve; became captain. Education: Wayne State University, BS, biology and chemistry, 1965, MA, 1969; Michigan State University, College of Osteopathic Medicine, DO, 1973.

Career: Private practice doctor of osteopathy, 1973-84; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, consultant on education in the health professions, 1984-90; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, health policy fellow, 1990-91; State of Michigan, Governor's Minority Health Advisory Committee, community representative, 1990-93; Michigan State University, associate dean and professor of family medicine, 1993; Ohio University, College of Osteopathic Medicine, dean, 1993-2000; New York Institute of Technology, dean of School of Allied Health and Life Sciences, 2001-02; New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, dean, 2002-06, vice president for health sciences and medical affairs, 2006—.

Selected memberships: American Osteopathic Association; American Osteopathic Board of Family Physicians, fellow; National Association of Medical Minority Educators; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Advisory Committee on Rural Health.

Selected awards: Magnificent 7 Award, Business and Professional Women U.S.A., 1993; Distinguished Alumni Award, Wayne State University, 1994; Women's Health Award, Blackboard African-American Bestsellers Inc., 1994; Ohio Women's Hall of Fame, 1998.

Addresses: Office—New York Institute of Technology, Old Westbury, NY 11568. Web—

In 1984 Ross-Lee decided to leave private practice in hopes of creating change in the heath-care system. Combining her love of teaching with her passion for medicine, she went to work for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a consultant on education in the health professions. In 1990 she became the first doctor of osteopathy selected to receive the health policy fellowship from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The heath policy fellowship offers health professionals the opportunity to work in government, educational, and health organizations in order to learn how to influence the nation's policies and procedures on health issues.

As a fellow, Ross-Lee went to work in the office of Democratic Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey. Bradley served on a number of important committees, including the Subcommittee on Health for Families and the Uninsured, the Senate Special Committee on Aging, and the National Commission for Prevention of Infant Mortality. Working with Bradley's office, Ross-Lee had the opportunity to participate in creating legislation about issues that deeply interested her, such as welfare reform, infant deaths, and immunization against disease. She became committed to working to improve government health-care policies. From 1990 through 1993 she served as a community representative on the Governor's Minority Health Advisory Committee for the State of Michigan.

Headed School of Osteopathy

A lifelong teacher, Ross-Lee also began to devote herself to medical education. In 1993 she returned to Michigan State to become an associate dean and professor of family medicine. Within a year she received a job offer from the University of Ohio to head their College of Osteopathic Medicine. Ross-Lee took the position, becoming the first African-American woman to head a U.S. medical school. She remained at Ohio for seven years, then left to take a position a the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) in Old Westbury on New York's Long Island. At NYIT she held the position of dean of the School of Allied Health and Life Sciences until 2002, then became dean of the school's New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. In 2006 she became vice president for health sciences and medical affairs for NYIT.

Ross-Lee has made it the mission of her career both to improve health care for the poor and people of color, and to increase the number of people of color working in the health-care field. She has been a national advocate for bringing the heath issues of women and people of color to the forefront, and has lectured, written articles, and served as an adviser to both state and federal governments on many issues of minority and women's health. She is also a tireless supporter of osteopathic doctors and has devoted considerable energy to educating the public about the advantages of osteopathy.



Jet, November 8, 1993, p. 18.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 18, 1993.

New York Times, February 10, 2002.


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"Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee," National Library of Medicine, (accessed March 3, 2008).

"Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee Biography," HistoryMakers, July 25, 2007, (accessed March 3, 2008).

"Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee: On a Health Care Mission," Networking, (accessed March 3, 2008).

"The Health Vulnerable: Getting to Higher Ground," North Carolina Health Careers Access Program, (accessed March 3, 2008).

"Profiles of RWJ Health Policy Fellows," Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, (accessed March 3, 2008).

—Tina Gianoulis