Velma P. Scantlebury, M.D.: the first black female transplant surgeon in the U.S.

February 14, 2020

This profile on Velma P. Scantlebury, M.D. is the eight post in a month-long series of profiles on Black STEM innovators in honor of Black History Month. Today’s post also celebrates National Organ Donor Day, by focusing on Dr. Scantlebury, the first black female transplant surgeon in the U.S.

Today, Americans are focused on hearts for Valentine’s Day – heart-shaped, cards, candy, and proverbial hearts will be given and received around the country to express love and appreciation for one another. While the heart may be a vital bodily organ associated with love, today is also National Organ Donor Day so be sure to show love to the other less romantic, but still important organs that can be donated to express Φιλία (Philia), a platonic love for other people.

Velma P. Scantlebury, M.D., the first black female transplant surgeon in the United States, understands the concept of philia more deeply than most. While Dr. Scantlebury regularly sees organ donors’ selfless acts of love for fellow humans, she was not readily met with this sentiment throughout her career due where black female doctors are a minority in the male-dominated surgeon profession1. A 2016 article published by the Yale School of Medicine wrote that after Dr. Scantlebury was already practicing for years she was checking on a new patient when “the patient asked to see his surgeon” to which she replied “I am your surgeon.2

In fact, a 2011 survey of transplant surgeons who belong to The American Society of Transplant Surgeons (ASTS) identified 90% of respondents as male and only 2% identified as African American3. A more recent study, conducted by the American Medical Association, concluded that men still occupied a significant percentage of surgeons among all specialities4.

Born in 1955 in Barbados, Dr. Scantlebury’s interest in medicine grew after her older sister died5. Her family moved to New York in 1970 in the hopes that Dr. Scantlebury’s curiosity and academic potential would thrive, however the young student faced many prejudices and even reported that a high school “guidance counselor told her to forget college and get a job in a hospital.5” This unwise, incorrect, and racist comment only fueled Dr. Scantlebury, proving the nay-sayers wrong by earning a four-year scholarship to Long Island University where she graduated with honors and a degree in biology and pre-med before attending Columbia University5.

Despite facing more racism at Columbia, Dr. Scantlebury was able to find mentors and supports while she completed classes to earn a medical degree5. Dr. Scantlebury went on to complete an internship and residency in general surgery at Harlem Hospital Center in New York City2.

After her fellowship training in transplantation surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Scantlebury was invited to join the University’s School of Medicine staff in 1989 as an assistant then an associate professor of surgery3. Dr. Scantlebury continued her work as an educator after accepting an offer in 2002 to serve as professor of surgery and an assistant dean for community education for the University of Southern Alabama in Mobile6.  Dr. Scantlebury was lauded by the University for her Research “on pregnancy and reproduction after transplant, FK506 in pediatric and adult kidney transplantation, and post transplant [sic] hypertension,” as well as for her charitable work providing opportunities to underprivileged, underserved families7.

She is the recipient of the National Kidney Foundation’s Gift of Life Award for her work in transplantation among minorities. Scantlebury is a member of the American College of Surgeons and has served as vice-chairperson of the African-American Outreach committee at the National Kidney Foundation of Western Pennsylvania.

Due to her groundbreaking accomplishments as a transplant surgeon and the pathways she’s opened for other women and women of color, Dr. Scantlebury was included on the “Best Doctors in America” and “Top Doctors in America” lists multiple times and received many award including the American Society of Minority Health and Transplant Professionals Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Kidney Foundation, Gift of Life Award.

Dr. Scantlebury currently has performed 2,000 transplants, published 86 peer-review research papers, wrote 10 monographs, and sold 1,200 books according to her website. For any other struggling, but determined people who hope to be successful in the face of adversity, Dr. Scantlebury advices ". . . first believe in yourself and your abilities, and your value. Do not let others define success for you . . .4"

To learn more about Dr. Scantlebury’s groundbreaking career, listen to her interview on the Emerge Woman Magazine Podcast available on Spotify, titled Episode 21 - Beyond Every Wall: Becoming the 1st African American Female Transplant Surgeon.


  1. Virginia Commonwealth University. (2016. February 16). First black female transplant surgeon details kidney transplant inequity. Retrieved from
  2. Yale School of Medicine. (2016). Still against all odds. Retrieved from
  3. Florencea, L;  Fengb, S., Foster C.; Fryerd, J.; Olthoffe, K., Pomfretf E.; Sheinerg, P.; Sanfey, H.; & Bumgardneri, G. (2011) Academic Careers and Lifestyle Characteristics of 171 Transplant Surgeons in the ASTS. American Journal of Transplantation. Retrieved from
  4. Velma P. Scantlebury, M.D. (2020). About Dr. Scantlebury. Retrieved from
  5. Encyclopedia. (2020, January 7). Scantlebury–White, Velma. Retrieved from
  6. Post-Gazette. (2002, October 1). Pitt losing top transplant surgeon. Retrieved from
  7. University of South Alabama. (2007, April 11). Midweek memo. Retrieved from