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Dr. FrancesOwl-Smith

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1950

Medical School

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine


New Mexico

Career Path

Diagnostic and therapeutic services: Pathology
Dr. FrancesOwl-Smith


Frances Owl-Smith M.D., was the second physician and first woman physician of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.


I wanted to be a role model for my children and my tribe. Originally I thought I wanted to be a family physician, but later chose pathology.


Frances Owl-Smith, M.D., is the first woman of the Eastern Band Cherokee to become a physician, and a role model for her children and her tribe. She attended medical school as a mature student, inspired to set a good example for her young children, and has shaped her career in medicine to accommodate the needs of family life and fulfil her professional ambitions at the same time.

Dr. Owl-Smith knew she wanted something more, for herself and for her children. "Around age 27," she says, "I had an early mid-life crisis and decided to go to college. It was a very scary thing for me to do. But I wanted my children to have more opportunities than I did and I knew it had to start with me." Thus, with three children, the youngest only 18 months old, she applied for and received an Indian Health Services scholarship to study medical laboratory technology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. She did well: she graduated summa cum laude, as a University Scholar, and received both a Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society Award and a Medical Technology Award.

She considered attending podiatry school in Philadelphia and, for the first time in her life, boarded an airplane to attend an interview. As fate and good thinking would have it, Owl-Smith said, "Later, I got a little braver and decided if I was smart enough to go to podiatry school, maybe I should consider real medical school." She was accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, and in the summer of 1983 she moved with her husband and children to Chapel Hill. In 1987 Frances Owl-Smith received her doctor of medicine degree.

Dr. Owl-Smith originally envisioned a career in family practice. Ultimately, though, she explained, "I chose pathology primarily because of my family and the need to have a more routine lifestyle. I'm so happy I did. Pathology has been very rewarding and I love the visual aspect of making microscopic diagnoses. It's a great specialty for a woman, especially one with a family." Dr. Owl-Smith remained at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her pathology residency and fellowship. In 1992 she left Chapel Hill to become deputy chief of pathology at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center in Arizona, where she took on additional duties as medical examiner for Maricopa County and medical director for Consultants Medical Laboratory.

In 1995 Dr. Owl-Smith became associate director of the Tres Rios Pathology Laboratory in Farmington, New Mexico. She is also a consulting pathologist for the Laboratory Corporation of America. Dr. Owl-Smith has served as a consultant for the National Cancer Institute Special Populations Study Branch and as a resident delegate for the College of American Pathologists.

While a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, Dr. Owl-Smith received the Ciba-Geigy Award for Outstanding Community Service and the James Bell Bullitt Award for Outstanding Achievement. She is a member of the College of American Pathologists and the American Society of Clinical Pathologists.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

Leaving the security of home on the reservation and financial obstacles.

How do I make a difference?

My children have succeeded academically. Unfortunately, I live far away from my home reservation.

Who was my mentor?

A fellow tribal member who went to college after having several children. She was encouraging to me.

How has my career evolved over time?

Although I have been practicing for ten years, I have seen great changes in medicine. These are mostly the result of managed care and large for-profit health care organizations. The government has also regulated the health care industry almost to the breaking point. It is difficult to provide health care because of all the regulations you have to follow.