The search function came in handy when reviewing the transcript of my interview with Dr. Natalia Tanner, whom I met in her sunny Detroit office on November 11th. Since it feels as though everything Tanner wasn’t the first black woman pull off, she was either the first woman or the first African-American to accomplish, I’d searched for “first.” The last find was the one that stuck in my head.
I’d asked, “You’ve got the triple whammy: you’re female, you’re black and you’re over 65. Which of the three has posed the most serious hurdle?” “I think age is the first discrimination for me, as an individual,” she replied. “Sex I don’t think makes that much difference. Racism is always going to come into play. Most people think that when you’re my age” — Tanner is 85 — you’re debilitated in some way, mentally or physically.”
When I asked how that attitude presented itself, Tanner retorted, “People will just come up to me and say, ‘You’re retired haven’t you?’ I say ‘No, I’m not retired!’ I’ve been on the front page of the Southfield Eccentric. I’ve been in the Detroit News and the Free Press doing what I’m doing. I’m not retired.”
What she’s doing is practicing medicine. Tanner was the first black pediatrician in the Detroit community, setting up shop in a building on 12th Street that was destroyed in the riots of 1967. She had done part of her undergraduate work at the University of Chicago (where she and her roommate were the only African American women to live in Blake Hall), “and I wanted to go back,” she recounts. “They had never had a black trainee — never, in the whole history of the hospital, in any department. I went back to one of my professors and said, ‘I want to get a residency in pediatrics here. Will you speak to the head of the department?’ He said, ‘Yes, I’m playing cricket with him this afternoon.'”
“They took me,” Tanner continues. “It was a very interesting year. I was like in a fishbowl: everybody knew me, from the women who cleaned the floors to the head of every department. I was never afraid. I wasn’t isolated, and the head of my department was behind me 100%. There were a few racial incidents but I handled them. Like I was on call one night and this Jewish gentleman came in with his daughter. He said, ‘This is a very liberal institution, isn’t it?’
“I said, ‘Yes. We’re admitting your daughter.’ You know, I was just ready.”