Vera Joseph'36

From Spring/Summer 2008 Issue, P&S Journal

Vera Joseph’36: A Tribute 

By Kenneth A. Forde ’59

One of our outstanding alumnae, Vera Joseph’36, died at age 98 in Springfield, Mass., on Jan. 26, 2008. An immigrant from Jamaica, West Indies, she arrived in New York via Ellis Island in 1919. While attending George Washington High School in New York she won a scholarship to Barnard College, one of the first African American women in attendance there.

Vera JosephShe was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year and, upon graduation, was admitted to P&S on full scholarship. She was the second woman of her race at P&S and graduated AOA in 1936. Dr. Joseph secured a medical internship at Harlem Hospital, an unusual accomplishment for a minority student in 1936. Two years later she married Dr. Jerome S. Peterson, a 1931 P&S graduate, and together they shared many years of public health service nationally and internationally, for which they were both formally honored.

From tuberculosis clinics in Puerto Rico to membership in the Faculty of Medicine at American University of Beirut, Dr. Joseph was involved in educational, public health, and community activities wherever her husband’s World Health Organization assignments took him. She took on leadership positions in public health and aging and was Honorary Secretary of the Medical Women’s International Association in which she had been active for many years. When she and her husband ultimately settled in Amherst, Mass., in 1964, she joined the staff of the Smith College Health Service, becoming its director 10 years later. She served on many boards, including the Columbia-Presbyterian Health Sciences Advisory Council.

Vera Joseph provided inspiration for many, especially women of color, from family friends to students at Smith College. The attributes describe her as “beautiful, bright, kind, thoughtful, accomplished,” “a bronze titan among minority physicians.”

She was always mindful of her good fortune in receiving financial support at Barnard and P&S. She was concerned, however, that although 50 years after her graduation there was greater opportunity for minorities to enter medical school the financial burden was formidable enough to discourage many with promise. When her husband died in 1987 she established the Vera Joseph and Jerome S. Peterson Scholarship for Minority Students at P&S. Through this fund we keep her hopes, dreams, and contributions alive.

From Letter section, Winter 2009 Issue, P&S Journal 

Vera Joseph 

Dear Editor,

As a student at Smith College in the 60s, I was treated by Dr. Vera Joseph for the usual assortment of college maladies – flu, fatigue, sore throat – and remember with great appreciation and affection her unfailing kindness, patience, and compassion. However, Dr. Kenneth Forde’s illuminating tribute (“Vera Joseph’36: A Tribute,” Spring/ Summer 2008 issue) gave me greater appreciation of the woman and physician whose singular journey to Northampton, Mass., was unknown to most of us students and unimaginable to those of us whose greatest challenges were getting well enough to write our next paper or take our next exam.

I think that I speak for a number of my fellow alumnae in saying that we took for granted her status as a physician during our years at Smith, perhaps because the College promoted the belief that women could open any doors. The fact that she was an African-American woman who came of age when neither women nor African-Americans were readily welcomed into the medical community was by and large invisible to me. I am grateful that, thanks to the fund that Dr. Joseph established in 1987, there is a meaningful opportunity to recognize her remarkable accomplishments and to support the journey of those walking in her footsteps.

Marjorie Barkin Searl
Smith College’69
Wife of Steven Scott Searl’71