Almost 75 years ago when Dr. M. Dorcas Clark graduated from high school, medical career choices for women were limited and female physicians were rare. That didn’t stop the Fayette County native from embarking on a lifelong career as a pioneer in medicine.
After completing her bachelor’s degree in three years at West Virginia University, Clark entered the University of Maryland Medical School, graduating in 1945.
“I was one of five women in a graduating class of more than 100,” Clark said.
While serving in an internal medicine residency at University Hospital in Baltimore, Clark married John B. Harley, also a physician, in 1947. When her residency was over, Clark and her husband ran a family practice in Terra Alta, W.Va. “It was a little country town on top of a mountain,” she said, “and I was the only woman physician in the Morgantown area.”
Clark and her husband eventually had a small farm and four children, and she said they ran a typical family practice at the time, which included long hours and house calls, and sometimes dozens of patients a day.
Even though Clark had a woman who looked after the family while she was at the practice, “I tried to do everything,” she said. “I’d have office hours during the afternoon, then go home to have dinner with my children and put them to bed, then go back to the office, often late into the night.”
Deciding that she wanted to spend more time with her family, Clark completed a second residency from 1964 to 1968 in radiology at West Virginia University because of the attraction of regular hours.
“I had to give either the kids away or give that kind of medicine away, so of course I decided to give the medicine away,” she said with a laugh.
Clark’s training in radiology was the beginning of her expertise in breast cancer detection, although she said examining the breast in the mid-1960s was nothing like it is today.
“We would have the woman lie on the exam table,” Clark said, “and then lower the X-ray machine onto her breast. We actually only X-rayed about five patients at the most because we figured they were getting too much radiation and the films were terrible.”
By the time Dr. Clark arrived at Indiana Regional Medical Center’s Radiology Department in 1980, mammography had advanced, but at that time, only one or two patients per month were receiving mammograms, compared to the current rate of 45 per day.
During her 16 years at IRMC before retiring in 1996, Clark gained distinction as an expert in mammography, and continues to advocate for breast cancer awareness.
She is proud that during her tenure, IRMC started using digital mammograms, which allow doctors to view the image on a computer screen and adjust the image size, brightness or contrast to see certain areas more clearly.
“Even our mobile unit is digital,” Clark said.
Although digital mammography is a huge advancement, Clark feels that self-exams are an important tool in breast cancer detection because not all women have mammograms.
She also tries to educate men about awareness, since they, too, can get breast cancer.
“I diagnosed two or three since I came to Indiana,” Clark said. When a doctor suspects that a man has a malignancy, the center recognizes that the patient may be uncomfortable or reluctant about having the test performed. “We do a lot of mammograms on men,” she said, “and we try to make it as comfortable as possible.”
In 2005, IRMC honored Clark by dedicating its new M. Dorcas Clark, MD, Women’s Imaging Center in her honor. At more than 9,500 square feet, the imaging center offers bone-density testing to detect osteoporosis, breast ultrasound, mammography and stereotactic biopsy, which uses digital images to pinpoint the location of a breast mass before collecting a specimen. The center also has technology available to perform breast magnetic resonance imaging for certain breast masses that are difficult to detect.
Looking back on her 48 years as a practicing physician, Clark said she is happy with her “rare” career choice.
“I loved what I did,” she said.