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Dr. Audrey Forbes Manley

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1934

Medical School

Meharry Medical College


District of Columbia

Career Path

Public health: Government
Dr. Audrey Forbes Manley


Dr. Audrey Forbes Manley was the first African American woman to achieve the rank of Assistant Surgeon General (Rear Admiral).
Dr. Audrey Forbes Manley was the first African American woman appointed Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health in the United States Public Health Service.
Dr. Audrey Forbes Manley was the first African American woman to be appointed chief resident at Cook County Children's Hospital, Chicago.


There were two major events in my early childhood that I believe set the course of my direction towards medicine. One of these stories I heard much later in life from an uncle, but my maternal grandmother had a stroke and died when I was about three and a half years old. And on the night that she died, I said to her, as they took her from our home, to the hospital, that when I became an adult, I was going to become a doctor, so that I could take care of people when they got sick like her. And of course, that must have been very... very deep in my subconscious, because I was not aware of that incident until much later. But then when I was in 7th grade I had a science teacher, Mr. Caldwell, who taught me math and science, and from the 7th grade through the 9th grade, he was very challenging at a time when women—certainly young black girls—were not expected to do math and science. He pointed out to me that I was talented in this area, and pushed me, and expected a lot of me... and I decided on math and science—I loved it... and I thought that was the best way to use my math and science ability, was to study medicine.


Dr. Audrey Forbes Manley received a music scholarship to study at Spelman College in Atlanta. She took the opportunity to expand her education and interests and moved into the sciences. She was appointed Assistant Surgeon General in 1988, and is the first African American woman to hold a position of that rank in the United States Public Health Service. In 1997 she returned to Spelman, after forty years in medicine, to serve as president of the college.

Audrey Forbes was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1934, to Ora Lee Buckhalter Forbes and Jesse Lee Forbes. She grew up in a tenant farming family in Tougaloo, Mississippi, and as the eldest of three daughters had lots of responsibilities from an early age. By the time she was nine years old, she was picking cotton to help with the family finances.

The whole family moved to Chicago, Illinois during WWII, where Forbes graduated from Wendell Phillips High School with a major in music. She received a voice scholarship to the African American school for the betterment of young women, Spelman College in Atlanta, where she majored in biology with a double minor in chemistry and maths.

Forbes graduated cum laude and accepted a scholarship to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. She finished medical school in 1959 and went on to complete her residency at Chicago's Cook County Children's Hospital, where she became the first African American woman to be appointed chief resident. She then took a series of jobs in pediatric medicine and faculty appointments at the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, and the University of California. In 1970, she married Dr. Albert E. Manley, the first Black president of her alma mater, Spelman College. The couple moved back to the South and Dr. Audrey Forbes Manley took up a position as Chief of Medical Services at Grady Memorial Hospital's Emory University Family Planning Clinic in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1976, Dr. Manley took up her first federal post, as a Captain in the U.S. Public Health Service. Over the next ten years she studied sickle cell disease and other genetic illnesses, and in 1987 she earned a Master's degree in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. That same year she became the first African American woman appointed Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health in the U.S. Public Health Service, beginning a rise through the ranks, culminating in her appointments as Deputy U.S. Surgeon General in 1994 and acting U.S. Surgeon general from 1995 to 1997.

As Assistant Surgeon General, Manley directed over 6,200 commissioned corps officers of the National Health Service Corps, coordinating the provision of healthcare in underserved communities. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health, she directed the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), overseeing 45,000 employees and a budget of over $22 million.

In 1997, after nearly forty years in medicine, Dr. Manley became the first alumna president of Spelman college, taking up the position held by her late husband. She is especially proud of the school's success in encouraging young women students to train for careers in the sciences. Dr. Manley retired in 2002, although she remains involved in numerous organizations, including the American Academy of family Physicians and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. In 1999 she received the Academy of Women Achievers Award from the Young Women's Christian Association. In 2002 Dr. Manley received the Distinguished Service Award from the Atlanta City Council

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

The whole idea of a black girl becoming a physician at that time, was an obstacle. So I can't point to any one thing. But certainly, I was born to a poor family in rural Mississippi in the mid 1930s...which was right after the Depression, where Jim Crow was the order of the day. So I grew up in segregated rural South... I picked cotton, I went to the fields to work, and this was expected of young black children at that time. So I would say from the very beginning, there was an obstacle which I was not aware of. I was not aware that... that was not supposed to happen. Fortunately, I was in a rural community that surrounded a historical black college. And Tougaloo College, in Tougaloo, Mississippi was an HBCU and I grew up going up on the campus. We would go up on the campus to skate on Sunday, because that was the only sidewalk available, but I had a good education. A very good beginning. Good teachers. I remember things like hearing Marian Anderson sing when I was 5th grade, Roland Hayes sing, and I heard Ralph Bunch speak, on campus. All of these things took place on campus. I was not aware that the rest of the world viewed young black children in a particular kind of way. The expectation was high, my early education was very good, and so I saw no reason why I couldn't become what I wanted to become.

Who was my mentor?

The first role models that I had really were when I was in training. By the time I had reached Cook County, I had encountered at least two women physicians—Dr. Dorothy Brown, who was a professor of surgery at Meharry Medical College, which is quite singular, black women to be board certified in surgery at that time, and so I was very struck by this, and she was always, a real role model for me. By the time I got to Cook County, Dr. Rowine Brown, was the Administrator of Cook County Hospital. And so these were two very strong dynamic women were very successful in medicine.

My mentors—those who really took me under their wing, and sort of would tell me things that would be helpful to me—was Dr. Joseph Greengard, who was the Medical Director, and Dr. Ira Rosenthal, who was a professor at the University of Illinois, but attended at Cook County. Dr. Joseph Greengard, who was then the Medical Director at Cook County Hospital, was the first one to tell me, that: "You will be a great pediatrician, and you will take care of a lot of babies, and you'll make a lot of money. But that is not...where your life... should go." And he was the first one to talk to me about, either academic medicine, or public health, and to point out to me that you could touch more lives in those arenas than you could doing individual private practice.

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