Michelle Fang

Patricia Nez Henderson SPH ’94 MED ’00, the first Native American woman to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine, on Monday afternoon discussed her work promoting the wellness of the Navajo community at a talk hosted by University President Peter Salovey.

The event, held at the Yale Center for British Art, kicked off this year’s President’s Women of Yale series, a lecture series introduced in 2016 with the aim of honoring and showcasing the accomplishments of women — particularly women of color — who have graduated from Yale. During her lecture on Monday, Henderson, who serves as vice president of the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health, discussed her experiences at Yale and her work in South Dakota, before fielding questions from the audience.

“I really enjoyed my time at the School of Public Health and I loved that approach about enhancing wellness,” Henderson said before addressing a full auditorium. “And I was like, ‘How do I do that? How do I use my degree in medicine to work in public health?’”

Henderson said she considered dropping out during her second year at Yale as she dealt with the trauma of her Navajo community’s relocation and the obstacles she faced as the only native American student at the School of Medicine at the time. Around that time though, she attended a conference held by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, where she met Wilma Mankiller, who was then the chairwoman of the Cherokee tribe. Mankiller encouraged her to remain at Yale to inspire a younger generation of Native Americans.

Eventually, Henderson said she chose to pursue her love of public health, joining the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health with plans to focus on the wellness of Native American communities. Henderson’s research primarily addresses tobacco consumption and smoking, focusing in particular on why smoking starts at a young age on reservations and how Native Americans might metabolize tobacco differently.

Henderson also encouraged audience members to remember Native American communities in everyday discussions, emphasizing that doing so represents the first step to better understanding the group’s perspective.

Attendees interviewed by the News said they were inspired by Henderson’s lecture.

Heidi Dong ’20, who is on the pre-med track and serves as vice president of the Yale College Council, said Henderson’s evident passion for public health work was refreshing.

“I really liked how she framed the discussion about public health in tribal communities,” said South California resident Kinsale Hueston ’22, whose mother is from a Navajo reservation. “[She challenges] modern notions of contemporary medicine versus traditional medicine, [something] I’ve always wondered about that.”

Amy Meyers, director of the Yale Center for British Art, said she was impressed with Henderson’s “self-consciousness about the importance of her role in relation to her studies and how she’s able to take that out into the world and change not only medicine but society.”

With past speakers like Maya Lin, Vera Wells and Anita Hill, the President’s Women of Yale lecture series aims to highlight women whose leadership reflects the success of coeducation at Yale. Salovey introduced Monday’s lecture by crediting his wife, Marta Elisa Moret, for conceiving the series.

“When Peter became president, I realized that we didn’t do enough to celebrate women, so that was one reason [why] I developed this series with him,” Moret told the News.

As a Puerto Rican, she added, she also wanted to “celebrate women of color in particular.”

The Yale School of Medicine was founded in 1810.

Michelle Fang | michelle.fang@yale.edu