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Dr. Barbara L. Riley

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1951

Medical School

University of Colorado School of Medicine



Career Path

General medicine: Family
Dr. Barbara L. Riley


Dr. Barbara Riley became the first Alaskan Native appointed to the medical staff at Alaska's Kanakanak Hospital.
Dr. Barbara Riley is the first person from her hometown of Dillingham, Alaska, to become a physician.


Growing up in rural Alaska has many challenges. Receiving good medical care was an issue for my family and friends when I was a child. I thought if I became a physician, I could be part of the change to improve medical care.


As a family physician, Dr. Barbara L. Riley has always made her own family as well as her medical career her highest priorities. As her responsibilities as a parent have changed she has modified her work as a physician, taking part-time jobs when necessary. Now her children are older, she has the chance to extend her work around the world, and broaden the group she cares for.

Born in Alaska with Aleut and Inupiat heritage, Barbara Riley first left her home town of Dillingham in 1969 to attend Seattle Pacific College in the state of Washington. She attended the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver and received her M.D. in 1977. Following an internship in family practice at the Lancaster General Hospital in Pennsylvania, Dr. Riley married Richard Asher, M.D., a Cherokee from Oklahoma whom she met in medical school. They moved to Wyoming to complete their residencies at the University of Wyoming. After she became board certified in family practice, the couple relocated to Sitka, Alaska, in 1982. In order to devote her energies to her young family and believing that her sons should be her highest priority, Dr. Riley worked part-time to help balance her responsibilities. As well as locum tenens coverage, filling in for other physicians as needed, she worked part-time for a vaccination project run by the state of Alaska and the University of California, Los Angeles.

In 1984 she returned to practice in her home town of Dillingham, Alaska. Dr. Riley recalls, "Because of my apprehension of a 'prophet not being accepted in his own hometown,' I told my husband that we could stay for one year, and would have to leave if my Native people did not follow my recommendations." Despite her concerns, Dr. Riley was well received and spent the next dozen years serving as a family physician at Kanakanak Hospital.

When Dr. Riley left her full-time practice 1997, it was again because she decided that family responsibilities should take first priority. With her family, she moved to Oklahoma to care for her husband's aging mother. Over the next few years along with caring for her mother-in-law and children, Dr. Riley divided her professional time between the Indian Health Service clinics in Oklahoma and summer work at Kanakanak Hospital.

Now her children are in college she has more flexibility about the kinds of professional responsibilities she can take on. Most recently Dr. Riley and her husband served a five-month medical mission in Ukarumpa, Papua, New Guinea, in the spring of 2003. "Our long-term plans are to continue to work part time at Kanakanak Hospital as long as possible and to work part time in the mission field. Once our sons are out of college, we hope to do a long-term mission. Our dream is to work with the people in some African country."

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

I did not know of any Native Alaskan physicians. Having to leave my home to go to school, away from family support was difficult.

How do I make a difference?

I am the only Native Alaskan (Aleut and Inupiat heritage) on medical staff at Kanakanak. I am the first from our area to go to medical school, and the only to return to work in the hospital where I was born and to the community where I was raised. For whatever reason, this makes my Native people feel pride.

In addition, my husband Richard Asher, M.D., and I go on short-term missions to do medical work.

Who was my mentor?

A local physician, Dr. John Libby. He always showed compassion and a willingness to see everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.

My mother was my biggest supporter. A survivor of being a Japanese prisoner of war, having only a formal second grade education, she encouraged all of my family to get an education.

How has my career evolved over time?

Our other "job" is to do short-term mission work in different countries. We have gone on missions to Kapsowar, Kenya, Kosovo, Mexico and Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea. Our long term plans are to continue to work part time at Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham as long as possible, and to work part time on the mission field. Once our sons are out of college, we hope to do a long-term mission. Our dream is to work with people in some African country.