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Natalia Tanner (1922-2018)

Natalia Tanner (1922-2018)

She broke barriers as the first Black woman to become a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the first Black and the first female president of the Michigan AAP chapter – and one of the first pediatricians to focus on adolescent medicine.


Natalia Tanner was born in Mississippi but a year later moved to Chicago where her physician father, Joseph Rush Tanner, opened a private practice.  She graduated from her integrated high school at age 16, then went to Fisk University, a historically Black undergraduate institution in Tennessee, for her premedical education. She transferred to the University of Chicago for the last years of undergraduate training.

In 1945, she graduated from Meharry Medical School, a historically Black university that her father had also attended. Tanner told the Detroit Free Press in 1979 that she thought going to a predominantly white school would have impaired her professional development. “It makes no difference how many accolades you receive or how successful you are, the racism, however subtle, is there and I’m sensitive to it,” she said. In the next year, she married Dr. Waldo Cain – a surgeon who was in her class at Meharry. They would be married for 64 years, and have two daughters together.

She did her internship at Harlem Hospital in New York City, then returned to the University of Chicago for her residency in pediatrics. She said later that she went to one of her professors from her undergraduate studies and asked him to speak to the head of the department. The University had never had a Black trainee before, and she needed special approval.

She was Detroit’s only Black pediatrician when she started her private practice in 1952. She also joined the staff of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan as the first Black physician in a formerly segregated institution.

In the early 1960s, she realized she had an aptitude for working with adolescents, and decided to specialize in adolescent medicine – which she called ephebiatrics. In 1972 – when she was featured in Ebony magazine - she was one of only 500 physicians in the Society of Adolescent Medicine (SAM). She worked to improve the connections between the SAM, the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), the National Medical Association (the NMA, started in 1895 by Black physicians who were excluded from other professional organizations).

She joined the faculty at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine in 1968 (she would become a full professor in 1992). She struggled for acceptance in the American Association of Pediatrics, but became the first Black woman to be a full fellow of the AAP. In 1983, she was elected the first Black person and first woman to serve as president of the Michigan chapter of the AAP. 

She continued practicing medicine into her 80s, and even in her 90s she continued to attend grand rounds at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. She died at age 96.


Anderson, Monroe. “Doctor to Teen-agers.” Ebony. December 1972: p 47-58.


Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD

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