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There have been many excellent Black Plastic Surgeons in the United States. In recognition of Black History Month, today I am highlighting two important trail blazers: Dr. Arthur L. Garnes of New York and the San Francisco Bay Area’s own Dr. Rose Lewis.

Arthur L. Garnes – The First Black American Plastic Surgeon

Harlem Hospital Center is a 762-bed hospital located in Harlem in the Borough of Manhattan. It is also the home for the first Black American Plastic Surgeon, Arthur L. Garnes, M.D..

Dr. Arthur L. Garnes - The first Black American plastic surgeon.

Dr. Arthur L. Garnes – The first Black American plastic surgeon.

Dr. Garnes was born in Manhattan, NY, on June 13, 1912. He attended Townsend Harris High School in New York and City College of New York where he obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in 1933. He attended medical school at Howard University in Washington D.C., graduating in 1937, a time when it was very difficult for Blacks to gain access to higher education.

During his five years of surgical training, he developed an interest in plastic surgery. He was on the forefront, because plastic surgery did not become a specialty until 1941. In 1943, after being appointed Assistant Attending in Surgery, he started, with his mentor Dr. Joseph Tamarin along with Bernard Simon, the nucleus of the plastic surgery unit in Harlem Hospital.

In 1963, he was appointed a full attending. In 1965, the affiliation of Harlem Hospital plastic surgery section with Columbia University was initiated.

In 1972, a plastic surgery residency program affiliated with Columbia Presbyterian Hospital was created at Harlem Hospital through the efforts of Dr. George Crikelair, then the chairman of plastic surgery at Columbia Presbyterian, and Dr. Arthur L. Garnes. Dr. Garnes was appointed the chairman of the program and Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery at Columbia University. He was the first Black American Director of Plastic Surgery in the United States, and the program became the first approved plastic surgery residency program in a predominantly Black hospital.

More information is available in this article by Ferdinand A. Ofodile, MD. FACS, who was himself Chief of Plastic Surgery at Harlem Hospital Center.

The Plastic Surgery Training Program at Harlem Hospital lost its accreditation in 1985, part of an nationwide effort to reduce plastic surgery training programs that continued for decades, despite the US’s increasing population and the need for specialists. At the time, it was the largest plastic surgery service in NYC.

Arthur L. Garnes, MD, the first Black American Plastic Surgeon.

Vivian and Arthur L. Garnes, MD.

Dr. Arthur L. Games was a deeply religious man. He followed his own repeatedly-given advice, “Don’t retire, refire!” He was active during his 32 years of “retirement,” devoting himself to the teaching and study of the Bible and in caring for the assembly. He passed in 2010 at the age of 98.1

Rose M. Lewis, MD – the First Black Woman Plastic Surgeon

Dr. Rose M. Lewis of San Francisco, holds the distinction of being the first African-American female plastic surgeon in the world. There were few African-American doctors when she started her plastic surgery residency in 1978.

“But I didn’t let that stop me,” she says. “You don’t have to only communicate with doctors who look like you. When I started practicing, I connected with another woman and we were surgery residents together. Once we finished, we both went into plastic surgery and then we started practicing together. That made it less isolating to some extent.”2

Dr. Rose Lewis, the first Black Woman Plastic Surgeon

Dr. Rose Lewis – the first Black female plastic surgeon trained and practiced in San Francisco, CA.

Dr. Lewis attended Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, a Catholic high school in heart of San Francisco, CA3. After graduating in 1960, she attended UC Berkeley and finished college in two and a half years. She stated,”After I got out of UC Berkeley, all I wanted to do was get a job and earn an income. I began graduate school and started teaching chemistry.”

Eight years after graduating she went to medical school. She graduated from the UCSF School of Medicine in 1974. During medical school she earned an internship at Mt. Zion in general surgery. Then completed a two-year plastic surgery residency in Phoenix, AZ. She practiced plastic surgery in San Francisco for 25 years at both the San Francisco Children’s Hospital and Mt. Zion and retired in 2003.

Plastic Surgery Practice

Both these Black Plastic Surgery trail blazers practiced during my lifetime. It is not too surprising as Plastic Surgery was not given status as a major specialty board until 1941. Before that, a combination of General Surgeons, Orthopedic Surgeons and Otolaryngologists did the procedures that became the specialty of Plastic Surgery.

Plastic Surgery is one of the most competitive of all the surgical specialties, and with fewer and fewer training slots, it is not getting easier. If you are interested in becoming a Board Certified Plastic Surgeon, it will take years of sacrifice and dedication, as demonstrated by Drs. Garnes and Lewis. This might explain why only one in twelve claiming to be plastic surgeons in the US are Board Certified by the American board of Plastic Surgery.

Plastic Surgery Consultations

If you are interested in plastic surgery in the San Francisco Bay Area, call (925) 943-6353 to schedule a private consultation appointment.

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