HER GUIDING philosophy was laced with old-fashioned values -- hard work, persistence and the pursuit of excellence -- the stuff of which so many distinguished professional careers are made. But high achievement in the field of medicine was only a part of the impressive story of Dorothy B. Ferebee, who died here Sunday at the age of 83. Not only was Dr. Ferebee a highly respected physician, educator and administrator during a 40-year association with the medical faculty at Howard University, she was as well a tireless campaigner on behalf of blacks, women, the disadvantaged and anybody else who might have needed a little help along the way.
She could easily have forged ahead professionally without turning back to offer that help. As one historian noted a couple of years ago, Dr. Ferebee was "one of an almost extinct breed . . . an elegant lady with a social consciousness . . . She not only identified the needs of the poor but pricked the consciousness of the white do-good elite. She has opened many doors."
One of the first of those doors was in medicine, the field she had loved since her childhood days in Boston. "It was not easy," Dr. Ferebee recalled. "The medical school [at Tufts University] had five women out of 137 students. We women were always the last to get assignments . . . And I? I was the last of the last because not only was I a woman, but a Negro, too." And though she was among the top five in her graduating class, her applications for internships -- sent with photos -- were rejected. In time, a Civil Service exam led to an appointment to Freedmen's Hospital (now Howard University Hospital). At the time of her retirement in 1968, Dr. Ferebee was director of university health activities.
And by that time Dr. Ferebee's efforts for civil and human rights had won her national recognition: concern for a 9-year-old boy who had stolen a bottle of milk for his hungry 3-year-old brother drove Dr. Ferebee to the board of the then-all-white Friendship House to appeal for a place for black children of working mothers; that led to her founding the Southeast Neighborhood House. Concern for the poor led to seven summers in the worst years of the Depression during which she directed a health project in rural Mississippi.And firm belief in women's rights led her to be founder of the Women's Institute, successor to Mary McLeod Bethune as president of the National Council of Negro Women, and a vigorous leader of the D.C. Commission on the Status of Women.
In the Washington of those most active years, it took more than a little courage to break down the barriers of sex and color. Dorothy Ferbee -- spurning discouragement and goading herself always to "keep moving and keep busy" -- knew how to do so, with a marvelous blend of compassion, cussedness and class.