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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Winter 1997, Vol.17, No.1
Doctors In Print: Making It, Despite the Odds

"The Ditchdigger's Daughters,
A Black Family's Astonishing Success Story"

By Yvonne S. Thornton'73 (as told to Jo Coudert)
Birch Lane Press, 1995, 261 pp.

Review by Peter Wortsman

S ome heroes go unsung. Donald Thornton, the real life protagonist of "The Ditchdigger's Daughters," the stirring tribute by Yvonne Thornton'73 to her father, lived to hear the sweetest serenade the day he paged his daughter at Roosevelt Hospital: "Dr. Thornton, Dr. Thornton, line five, line five!" Hearing the name resonate in the hall of a great hospital was music to his ears and the fulfillment of an impossible dream.

While Don Quixote had only phantasmagorical windmills to tilt at, Don Thornton, a dreamer with his feet firmly planted on the ground, battled the insidious quagmire of racial prejudice and won. In the 1950s, the odds were stacked against the success of a black ditchdigger moonlighting at night as an oil deliveryman with a wife and five daughters to support. Fellow laborers took Thornton's vow that his daughters would grow up to become doctors as an idle boast. But there was nothing idle in Donald Thornton or his wife, Tass. When the bank refused him a mortgage to help pay for construction of a house--because of the color of his skin--he became a one-man construction company and built the house himself. And when money was needed to pay for his daughters' education, he conceived the idea of a family band, "The Thornton Sisters," soon to achieve star billing on the stage of the Apollo Theater and a loyal following on the college circuit.

Read as an inspirational roadmap to success--bumps and potholes included--"The Ditchdigger's Daughters" has a clear-cut message to convey in the Thornton family work ethic. The author quotes her no-less demanding mother:

"Your father works. I work," she said slowly and emphatically. "The job you children have is to study. As long as you work at your job as hard as your father and I do at ours, we'll take care of the house. We'll do the cooking and the washing up and the cleaning. But if you don't do your job, if you fool around or get lazy, then you'll do the housework because that's what you'll be doing for the rest of your life."

The regimen was tough, but the life gusto was never lacking. When due to circumstances beyond his control Donald Thornton was forced to retire, having guided his daughters to success in various professional fields, he regretted only that he could not start all over again.

Author Dr. Yvonne Thornton, an outspoken advocate of women's health issues and pioneer investigator in chorionic villus sampling, a form of prenatal diagnosis, is living proof of her father's faith and determination. The first African-American woman to be appointed a resident in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Roosevelt Hospital and the first to pass the boards in maternal/fetal medicine, Dr. Thornton is director of the Perinatal Diagnostic Testing Center at Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey.

A daughter's unabashed paean to paternal love, "The Ditchdigger's Daughters" could be faulted for an excess of sentiment, yet surely our jaded age could do with a few more heroes like this.

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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