As an African-American teenager in 1960s Muskogee, Clarence Wiley’s career prospects seemed limited to manual labor.
“I picked cotton until I was 18, baled hay and picked peaches,” Wiley said. “A bunch of peaches.”
As America celebrates Black History Month, the man who would become Oklahoma’s first African-American dermatologist recently took the time to reflect on how he moved out of the fields and into the clinic.
“Like most of the rural south in those days, Muskogee was a town divided,” said Wiley. Train tracks separated the white side of town from the black side. Sundown laws kept black citizens indoors after dark, and Muskogee maintained separate schools for its children.
Along with other minority students, Wiley attended Muskogee Manual Training School, where he participated in science fairs and read a lot of books. But it wasn’t until his junior year, when he was selected as a Sir Alexander Fleming Scholar by the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in 1968, that Wiley found the path that would take him away from the cotton fields and peach orchards for good.
Begun in 1956, the Fleming Scholar Program offered select high school students a summer of hands-on laboratory experience at OMRF in Oklahoma City. For most, and particularly for Wiley, it was a chance to gain experience far beyond what high school could provide. That summer, he learned the skills and made the connections that would lead him to a successful career in medicine.
“Even as our country struggled with civil rights issues, scientists recognized that it was the quality of your ideas, not the color of your skin, that mattered,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “Clarence Wiley was the prototype of the young person OMRF sought to train for a career in medicine or research—a stellar student with the initiative to use the experience to reach his career goals.”
But Wiley’s arrival in Oklahoma City wasn’t without incident. As the Fleming Scholars were shown to their rooms in a nearby hotel, hotel officials told Wiley he couldn’t stay with the other scholars because he was black. But an OMRF scientist quickly stepped in, providing Wiley lodging at his own home for the summer.
“Other than that initial episode, I was treated just like everyone else at OMRF and had a great summer,” Wiley said. He proved himself such a talented researcher that, following his Fleming summer, he was named a Westinghouse Science Scholar, one of the nation’s highest science honors for high school students. He was accepted to MIT, Johns Hopkins, Brown and several other prestigious universities.
After spending a second summer at OMRF—this time, his work was funded by a grant—Wiley matriculated at Brown University. A chance encounter during his first semester at Brown led Wiley to find his ultimate career path. As he was studying, an older man asked, “Son, what’s that on your neck?”
Wiley explained that he’d had the rash since he was a child and that the physicians he’d visited had never successfully treated it. The older man took a second look and recommended a simple treatment—applying shampoo to the affected area. Wiley was skeptical, but the treatment worked. And when it did, Wiley decided to pursue the same career as the man who’d helped him: dermatology.
He became the first African American to receive BS, MS and MD degrees from the Ivy League university, completing all three in a rigorous seven-year program. He then decided to return to Oklahoma to practice dermatology.
“At first, it was tough for me to get established and to get clients,” he said. “But there was a real need for a dermatologist to treat a diverse clientele,” and over time he built a strong reputation and patient base.
Today he operates his own practice in Oklahoma City, Beauty thru Health Dermatology, which specializes in skin care. He’s married and has three children, all of whom are currently attending college.
“It’s really special for me to live and practice medicine in the place where I grew up,” said Wiley. “I hope I’ve been able to help my patients in the same way I was helped many years ago.”