Dr. Lucy Orintha Oxley: Family Medicine Trailblazer

by Maya Drozdz

The oldest of three children, Lucy Orintha Oxley was born in 1912 to highly educated parents. Her mother, Esther (Turner) Oxley, was a teacher and an alumna of the Howard University Teachers’ College, who had done post-graduate work at the University of Michigan and at Cornell University. Edmund, her father, was an immigrant from Trinidad and a prominent Episcopal minister, who had trained at Howard University and was the first African American to graduate from the Harvard Divinity School. When Lucy was 3 years old, the family moved from Harrisburg, PA to Cincinnati so that Edmund could lead St. Andrew’s Church in the West End (now demolished).

Lucy grew up in a family of doctors and always planned to follow in their footsteps. Her uncle, George Leonard Oxley, was the first African American student to enroll in the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, though he went on to finish his studies at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. According to Lucy, his problems at UC due to his race motivated her decision, at age 10, to one day study there.

Woodward High School/Alumni Lofts photo via The Port

Oxley graduated from Woodward High School (now Alumni Lofts) in Over-the-Rhine at 16 and enrolled in UC’s six-year medical program. As one of the top 15 students in her medical class, she automatically qualified for a prized internship at Cincinnati General Hospital, the precursor to UC Medical Center. However, she was denied placement by the program director due to her race. (General Hospital would not employ any black resident physicians or nurses until the 1950s.) Oxley went on to complete her internship at Freedmen’s Hospital, the teaching hospital at her parents’ alma mater, Howard University in Washington DC.

UC College of Medicine class of 1936 photo via Winkler Center for the History of the Health Professions

In 1936, for the first time in its 115-year history, the UC College of Medicine conferred a medical degree on a person of color in Dr. Lucy Oxley. She was also the only woman and the only African American in her graduating class.

Immediately after that, Dr. Oxley served as the medical director for student health at two historically black colleges: Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, NC, and Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, OH.

When she returned to Cincinnati in 1940, Oxley found herself unable to gain admitting privileges at any local hospital. She opened her own general practice, first in the family’s home and then in an office in the West End.

Institutum Divi Thomae photo via Queen City Tour

In 1945, while continuing to practice medicine, she started working as a cancer researcher at the Institutum Divi Thomae in East Walnut Hills, an independent research laboratory led by George Sperti, who may be best known as the inventor of Aspercreme and Preparation H.

Dr. Oxley’s home photo via Google Streetview

Seven years later, she returned to practicing family medicine full-time and, soon after, Oxley purchased her 1935 Tudor Revival home on Stewart Ave. in Madisonville.

Dr. Oxley’s medical office photo via Google Streetview

In 1956, Oxley purchased property on Dexter Ave. on the border of East Walnut Hills and Evanston, building a new facility to house her medical practice, and becoming a fixture in the community over the next 30 years.

Dr. Oxley received multiple professional accolades, including the American Medical Association (AMA) Special Achievement Award in 1967. She co-founded the Ohio Academy of Family Physicians (OAFP) in 1974, and continued her strong support of family medicine by serving as president of the Southwestern Society of General Physicians from 1979 until 1981. In 1984, she became the first woman and first African American to receive the Physician of the Year award from the Ohio Academy of Family Physicians.

Dr. Oxley died in 1991. In 2008, in her honor, Dr. Kenneth Davis Jr., UC professor of surgery, and his wife, Johnie, established the Lucy Oxley African-American Medical Student Scholarship at the UC College of Medicine to provide funding for minority medical students. She had been one of Davis’ patients. In 2018, the UC College of Medicine honored Oxley with a panel commemorating her life and professional accomplishments.

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