First Female African-American Surgeon Shapes Orthopaedics

Claudia Lynn Thomas, MD, commits herself to mentoring children, underrepresented minorities, and residents

When individuals achieve unlikely and near-impossible feats, it is often done with the help of mentors and others who motivate them to never give up.

Claudia Lynn Thomas, MD, had the unwavering support of her parents, Charles, who taught her carpentry and the importance of a strong work ethic, and Daisy, who taught her the alphabet and how to sew. Those skills and foundational building blocks, coupled with an exceptional education and a loving, supportive family, helped propel Dr. Thomas to become the first female African-American orthopaedic surgeon.

Dr. Thomas is a profound example of excellence. Similar to how her parents supported her, she has served as mentor and motivational force for people of color everywhere who have dreams of achieving the highest goals. In 2008, she received the AAOS Diversity Award; however, her impact in
orthopaedics was evident many years earlier and will continue to be felt for many years to come.

Driven from the start

Dr. Thomas was born and raised in New York City and was encouraged by her parents to excel in school and life. She was a National Merit Scholarship awardee and won a New York Regents Scholarship while attending the High School of Music & Art in New York City.

She graduated from Vassar College in 1971, where she supported the development of a black studies program. Subsequently, Dr. Thomas completed her medical school education at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and was a trailblazer in 1980 as the first woman to graduate from the Yale University orthopaedic residency program and the first African-American woman in history to become an orthopaedic surgeon.

Next, Dr. Thomas completed a fellowship in trauma and spine in 1981 at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Unit in Baltimore. Later that year, she served as an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Johns Hopkins University orthopaedic surgery program and stayed until she transitioned to private practice in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1985. Five years later, Dr. Thomas returned to Maryland and subsequently accepted a position on the Maryland Medical Licensure Board as a part-time consultant. She returned to the Johns Hopkins orthopaedic faculty in 1992.

Dr. Thomas was a partner at Tri-County Orthopaedic Center in Leesburg, Fla., from 2004 to 2017. She is currently a staff physician at UNOVA Health in Lady Lake, Fla. She is also president of the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society (JRGOS) and has served on its advisory board since 1998.


In 2008, Claudia Lynn Thomas, MD, received the AAOS Diversity Award; however, her impact in orthopaedics was evident many years earlier and will continue to be felt for many years to come.
Courtesy of Claudia Lynn Thomas, MD

Giving back to minority communities

While working at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Thomas helped recruit the largest number of underrepresented minorities and women to train in its orthopaedic surgery program. From 2007 to 2017, she was involved in a mentoring program that emphasized the importance of education for middle school boys in central Florida, along with her Tri-County Orthopaedic Center partners. To this day, she continues to mentor numerous orthopaedic surgery residents, medical students, and college students. It has been her life’s work to increase diversity in orthopaedic surgery, with the goal of having orthopaedic surgeons more reflective of the patients and the communities they serve.

A glimpse into her storied career and life

Dr. Johnson: You have had an amazing career and life and have been an incredibly inspiring trailblazer in medicine. What motivated you to become a physician?

Dr. Thomas: Becoming a physician was a last-minute idea. I started Vassar College studying mathematics. Math became abstract to me during my junior year, so I changed my major to black studies. For my senior thesis, I performed undergraduate research on sickle cell anemia, studying several hundred people in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Recalling that I had enjoyed biology in high school, I quickly changed course and completed my premedical requirements and the Medical College Admission Test during my senior year in college and then applied to medical school.

Dr. Johnson: How did you choose a career in orthopaedic surgery at the Yale orthopaedic surgery department, considering that, at that time, there had never been a female orthopaedic surgery resident at Yale University and no African-American woman had ever become an orthopaedic surgeon?

Dr. Thomas: I decided that I wanted to become a surgeon because of my manual dexterity. I was an art major in high school and had learned to sew from my mother, who was a seamstress. My father was also manually skilled and taught me carpentry in his spare time.

After performing surgery rotations during my first year of medical school at Johns Hopkins, I loathed general surgery. Once exposed to orthopaedic surgery, I fell in love with the specialty. My passion for geometry, sewing, carpentry, art, and sculpture was a perfect fit. At that time, there were about 25 female orthopaedic surgeons in the country, none of them African-American. Nonetheless, my chief resident encouraged me to consider a career in orthopaedics. I did not learn that I was the first African-American woman to do so until I had completed my residency.

Dr. Johnson: You have spent your career working to improve diversity in orthopaedic surgery and medicine. Where do you see the best opportunities to increase diversity, and what are the greatest challenges?

Dr. Thomas: It is helpful for young people to engage other African-American orthopaedic surgeon role models. Mentoring programs that cater to underrepresented minorities and women provide a great platform for exposure to orthopaedic surgery. Some examples include:

  • The Nth Dimensions Program: a program that gives minority students exposure to orthopaedic surgery. The program was founded in 2005 by Bonnie Mason, MD, who is a past winner of the AAOS Diversity Award. Dr. Mason has guided more than 2,500 students to orthopaedic surgery.
  • The Saturday Science Academy: a JRGOS pipeline program initiated 15 years ago at Charles R. Drew University that introduces minority students in Los Angeles to science and mathematics
  • The Tri-County Orthopaedic Mentoring Program: a JRGOS pipeline program initiated more than a decade ago to mentor African-American middle school boys in academics and leadership skills in central Florida. I developed this program with my five African-American male orthopaedic surgery private practice partners. This program also follows the students through high school and provides graduating seniors with scholarships.

Dr. Johnson: Would you remind our readers of the resources available to them to enhance their sensitivity/tools when treating patients of different backgrounds?

Dr. Thomas: There is a culturally competent care program at the Harvard Medical School, directed by Augustus A. White, MD, with support from JRGOS, which has conducted research and developed publications to assist orthopaedic surgeons in dealing with issues of disparity in health care. Further, the AAOS Diversity Advisory Board provides tools, including pamphlets, PowerPoint presentation slides, and educational materials, to assist Academy members in providing culturally competent care in their practices.

Dr. Johnson: What advice would you offer to an orthopaedic chairperson or residency director who would like to see more underrepresented minorities and women in their residency programs?

Dr. Thomas: I believe that improving diversity in orthopaedic surgery takes a major commitment from the chairperson of the orthopaedic surgical department. I recall my experience after being hired as an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Johns Hopkins. There had been only two African-Americans and two female graduates of the Johns Hopkins orthopaedic surgery residency program during the 50 years prior to my serving on the Johns Hopkins orthopaedic faculty. I met with the Johns Hopkins orthopaedic surgery chairperson to discuss the importance of diversity in orthopaedic surgery. I also volunteered to assist in the preliminary review of the 600 applications that the department received each year for five residency spots.

As a result, the chairperson, my colleagues, and I were able to increase the number of African-American residents in training to 32 percent and the number of female residents in training to 20 percent of total residents during my tenure.

Dr. Johnson: Tell us about JRGOS and what you would like to accomplish during your time as president.

Dr. Thomas: JRGOS’ mission is to increase diversity in the orthopaedic profession and promote the highest-quality musculoskeletal care for all people. I have set forth several related and important goals, some of which include:

  • increasing JRGOS’ membership
  • educating members about the importance of JRGOS’ mission and vision
  • developing a new JRGOS website
  • developing a curbside consulting program
  • strengthening and continuing to support current research (clinical and basic science research grants), scholarships (traveling national and international fellowships and mock oral board scholarships), and mentoring programs (Tri-County, Saturday Science Academy, and the Nth Dimensions program)

Dr. Johnson: What advice do you have for minorities and women considering orthopaedics?

Dr. Thomas: Anything worth doing will be extremely challenging. Orthopaedic surgery is well worth doing. Your brain has to be filled with an endless amount of scientific, technical, and artistic knowledge, so as your true personal computer, it must be continuously fed. As an African-American female, I am living proof of what a determined individual can achieve. You have the advantage of role models who were not there for me, so find one, latch on, and learn. Yes, you will encounter racial and gender bias, but you must learn to step over the trash and keep on climbing.

An excerpt from God Spare Life

In 2007, Claudia Lynn Thomas, MD, wrote her autobiography—God Spare Life.

In her book, she reveals how she overcame Hurricane Hugo when it devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1989, as well as how she survived bilateral renal cell cancer and kidney transplantation.

Whether it was becoming the first female orthopaedic resident at the Yale orthopaedic surgery program, becoming the first female African-American board-certified orthopaedic surgeon, surviving Hurricane Hugo’s devastation of the Virgin Islands and her orthopaedic practice, surviving bilateral renal cell cancer and dialysis, or eventually enduring surgery for kidney transplantation, Dr. Thomas credits her faith and spirituality for getting her through those life challenges.

Dr. Thomas is an outstanding role model, groundbreaker, and living testament to the value of perseverance, excellence, and faith.

The following is an excerpt from God Spare Life, Dr. Thomas’ autobiography.

I am a woman of science, about as highly trained as any individual can be. I spent the first 30 years of my life preparing to be a physician. The instruction began as a toddler, sitting alongside my sister at our kitchen table while my mother held up homemade flash cards to teach reading and basic arithmetic.

My mother’s own learning disability had taught her the value of education. Dyslexia may have held her back, but with the head start that my mother gave me, I could read, write, add, and subtract by the time I started kindergarten.

While I was being taught my ABCs and how to do math at my mother’s knee, my father was teaching me manual skills and to pursue excellence in all endeavors. He also taught me about God.

Growing up within a solidly structured family empowered me to accomplish nearly all goals that I set for myself.

Wayne A. Johnson, MD, represents Oklahoma as a member of the AAOS Board of Councilors and serves on the AAOS Communications Cabinet, AAOS Diversity Advisory Board, AAOS Now Editorial Board, and JRGOS Board of Directors.

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