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Dr. Marcelle Willock, groundbreaking role model for women and people of color in medicine, dies at 84

Dr. Willock chaired the anesthesiology department from 1982 to 1998 at what is now BU’s Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. Photo courtesy of Cydney Scott, Boston University.

Dr. Marcelle Willock initially faced some resistance and resentment when she arrived in 1982 at the Boston University School of Medicine, where she became one of the nation’s first women of color to head an academic and clinical department.

“I was told by certain higher-ups to know my place,” she said in a 2020 interview with Bostonia, the university’s alumni magazine. “A couple of faculty told me they were not going to work for a Black person.”

Then there was a “very senior” white male colleague who told her, " ‘Marcelle, don’t speak up so much.’ There were three Black women who were senior administrative assistants,” Dr. Willock recalled. “They were all high school graduates and very capable at their jobs. These women were soft-spoken. That same senior person told me those women should be my role models.”

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Instead, she was a role model and an inspiration for women and people of color in medicine while forging a groundbreaking career that took her from her childhood in Panama to New York City and Boston.

Dr. Willock was 84 when she died Oct. 12 of complications that followed emergency surgery in Toronto, where she was visiting relatives.

At BU, “she was able to be a role model for so many other women and people of color,” said Dr. Ravin Davidoff, a professor of medicine and executive medical director at Boston Medical Center. “I saw that shine through repeatedly in how she took people under her wing.”

She chaired the anesthesiology department from 1982 to 1998 at what is now BU’s Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.

During her tenure, and as a leader in anesthesiology at what formerly were Boston University Medical Center Hospital and Boston City Hospital, Dr. Willock initiated lasting improvements in the operating room, residency programs, and patient safety, colleagues said. She also ensured that the hospitals would train nurses and paramedics when Boston MedFlight began in the mid-1980s.

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Among the most memorable changes she pushed for was ensuring that only trained and accredited anesthesiologists would provide anesthesia care. Previously, dentists often filled that role at Boston City Hospital.

While leading the anesthesiology department at BU, she made the residency program a welcoming place for a wider range of young physicians, including those from other countries.

“She believed in giving people opportunities,” said Dr. Rafael Ortega, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and now chairs the anesthesiology department at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.

With her commanding presence and fluency in Spanish, “she accepted women, she accepted minorities, but it was something she didn’t wear on her sleeve,” said Ortega, who as a student was mentored by Dr. Willock and became a lifelong friend. “She did it because she thought it was the right thing to do. She was very clear about being fair and equitable.”

Dr. Willock also was among the early academic leaders who recognized that health care leaders would benefit from graduate level training outside of medical school.

In addition to her medical degree, she received a master’s from Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City, and a master’s in business administration from Boston University.

She spent her final working years as the first woman to serve as dean of the college of medicine at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, retiring in 2005.

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In 2019, Dr. Willock was appointed professor emerita at BU’s medical school, becoming the first Black woman to hold that title.

“You are living history,” Ortega said at the ceremony.

Born on March 30, 1938, Marcelle Willock was one of three siblings and the only daughter of George Willock and Renee Dumanoir Willock.

Her father was a Reuters news service correspondent and a newspaper editor. Her mother served as the honorary consul of Panama in Guyana.

Growing up in Panama and Guyana, Dr. Willock decided as a young girl to become a physician, inspired by the doctor who delivered her and was a friend of the family.

“My parents never told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl,” she told Bostonia.

In the 1950s, she graduated from the College of New Rochelle in New York as one of the first people of color the school admitted.

She then graduated from Howard University College of Medicine, where “ours was the largest class of women until then,” she told Bostonia. “We had 10 women in our class, out of 100 students, and all of us graduated.”

Initially interested in becoming a surgeon, she faced so much discrimination as a woman and physician of color during a New York City internship that she switched to anesthesiology.

While in New York, she made sure to attend the March on Washington in 1963, and was in the crowd listening to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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“I had to defend my reasons because if I took the day off, it would be a burden on my classmates,” she said in 2020, adding that “you wanted to be at the march. … It was a joyous occasion. It was inspirational.”

She served on the faculty at what was then the New York University School of Medicine before being recruited by BU’s medical school.

Arriving in Boston in the years after court-ordered busing to desegregate the city’s schools had roiled racial tensions, she found herself working with white colleagues who “didn’t show respect,” she told Bostonia, but “I had a job to do and I did it. I was the boss.”

During her career, Dr. Willock recalled, she advised students that “just because the other person is a jerk doesn’t mean you have to be one. Don’t hate anybody, because hate destroys you. You are wasting your time worrying about them, and they don’t give a damn about you. My mother taught me that.”

Dr. Willock never married, and in a draft for a eulogy he was preparing, Ortega said he remembered “her telling me stories about former boyfriends, and explaining how difficult it was for strong women like herself to find a compatible husband.”

She leaves a niece, nephews, and her brother’s wives.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Nov. 12 in St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Chestnut Hill, and the Mass will be live-streamed.

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“She was fiercely proud,” said Dr. David McAneny, a professor of surgery and associate dean for clinical affairs at BU’s medical school. “She was proud of her heritage, proud of her Panamanian roots, and proud of the residents she had trained. She loved to learn and really loved to teach. She wanted to make everyone better.”

Among the educational funds and foundations that Dr. Willock supported was one in Panama that her family launched nearly 70 years ago to provide scholarships.

“She was such a believer in education and keeping on the cutting edge for all organizations,” said Jane St. Clair, a longtime friend who formerly was executive director of the regional emergency medical services council in New York City. “She had a fabulous sense of humor, was very people-oriented, and was very concerned with education and quality in education.”

The barriers Dr. Willock faced as a woman and a person of color changed during her life, depending on where she lived. What didn’t change was her determination and ability to overcome every challenge she encountered.

“Growing up in Panama and Guyana, being Black was not such an obstacle,” she told Bostonia.

“But women were still very much behind. So for me my gender was more of an obstacle than my race,” she added. “But after I got to this country and I got further along and became more prominent, it became a battle of the two —race and gender. Both were obstacles. I think I’ve weathered the obstacles.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.