The First Black Female Physician in Rock Hill

Celia Kerr, Dr. Vicky Kerr's daughter, remembers what it was like to be the child of the first black female physician in the area. "My mom was the first black female physician in Rock Hill, and so it was kind of different. People weren’t quite used to that. In kindergarten, someone told me that only men could be doctors, so I came home and asked my mom, was she a man? And she said no, I’m not a man. Why would you ask that?"

Dr. Vicky Kerr came to Rock Hill in the 1980s, opening her practice there in Family Medicine in 1982. During her educational and professional career, it was not common for women, much less black women, to pursue a career as a doctor. Dr. Kerr recalls a memory of her younger days, when most people were under the impression that if you were a woman interested in medicine, your only option was to become a nurse. 

She says, "At the age of three or four, I got my first little nursing bag under the Christmas tree, and I knew then I was hooked. I was going into the medical field, but I thought I would be a nurse because I had no idea that there were women doctors. In high school, I realized that if I really wanted to work with patients in the way I desired, I’d have to become a doctor."

Taking the road less traveled did not come without its challenges. Before even getting to med school, Dr. Kerr faced adversity when it came to her acceptance to George Washington University.

She says, "Well it was interesting because that particular year, which was 1970, MEDCATS, the exam you take just like the GRE to get into medical school, did a survey on your race and all of that. Well, my picture looked kind of generic, like black-and-white pictures do, and  my hair was straight, so they thought I was white and they accepted me. They got the information from MEDCAT, and they wrote me a letter and said, we hear you’re going to Rutgers. You cannot apply and accept two schools at one time, so please rescind your application acceptance. I wrote them back and said I am not going to Rutgers, I’m coming to GW and I’ve already paid my hundred dollars, which is nonrefundable. But if you will exempt that and pay me back my hundred dollars, I’ll give it to Rutgers. I heard nothing. They weren’t giving up that hundred dollars."

She continues with her life story, telling us what she did after medical school, "So, after I got out of medical school and started practicing, and what I did there was I went to a residency, and I was hired by the national health service corps. So I went and worked with migrant Mexicans in California, and then I moved to Alabama and worked with descendants of slaves, some of whom were still slaves on plantations and had no birth registration or history. Then I moved to northern Alabama and worked with people who were basically Klan members."

Celia adds, "She was approached by Klansmen quite a bit who didn’t want her to be in that town. They didn’t want her to be a doctor there. She stuck it out, whereas other people would’ve left, she stayed. She said, well you don’t have to like me, but I’m here to save your life, whether you like me or not, and so that’s a very powerful message."

Dr. Kerr never let adversity get in the way of her educational and professional goals, and has been able to accomplish a lot. When she was still working on her undergraduate degree, she was hired by an instructor to do research and ended up discovering a compound that about 30 years later would end up saving her life.

She says, "I discovered a chemical that had not been discovered before, without knowing what I was doing. We were doing work with cells, cellular biology and division of cells, and this particular one stopped the division at a certain phase. So, my mentor and boss, I guess at that time, called Abbott Labs, a pharmaceutical lab in Boston. They sent a researcher over and he worked with us to identify what the chemical was. When I was doing my research, it was all during college, and I discovered that in my junior year. By the time I went to medical school, NIH was developing medications from that compound to cure leukemia. Now I will say this: before that, there was no cure for childhood leukemia. Those kids died. So this was the first big compound that was used to help children live." 

Thirty years later, Dr. Kerr became sick. After losing vision in her eye, Dr. Kerr went through a series of tests and eventually was diagnosed with Lymphoma. 

With a positive outlook, Dr. Kerry says, "I was blessed when I found I had a lymphoma and what were the compounds. I was treated with the derivative of the one that I discovered. So God is good. He’s helped save my life. He helped me save my life, I guess I should say."

Dr. Kerr eventually retired, as her cognitive function was deteriorating, due to cancer treatment. She is now in good health.

Of her mother, Celia says, "it was incredible just to see how many lives she’s touched and how many different ways she did it, not just with medicine and not just on an individual basis, but she did it in all types of ways. As a tutor at the library, she used to do that. So she did so many things and that’s just her heart, but I think that if more people were like her, we would be in a much better place than we are now."