Barbara Roberts, M.D.

“Don’t take shit from anybody.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, April 2023

BR: My name is Barbara Hudson Roberts. I was born in New York City on July 24, 1944.

JW:  Tell us a little briefly about your childhood, ethnic background, siblings. What kinds of influences do you think there were that led you to be the person you became?

BR:  I had a very unusual upbringing because I was raised as the oldest of ten children in a devout Catholic family. My parents belonged to the Catholic Worker Movement. The Catholic Worker Movement was founded by the radical Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day, and they believed in strict adherence to the dictates of the Catholic Church, particularly around issues like birth control.

Birth control was a mortal sin, and they, and like-minded friends, decided that they wanted to raise their children away from the temptations of the “big city.” The big city in this case, being New York City. So, they founded a community which they called Marycrest, named after the Blessed Virgin Mary, and they bought 52 acres of land in what was then called “the country”, but it’s now called the suburbs, in Rockland County, New York.

We were the first family to move in. Everybody chipped in and helped each other build their houses, although they knew next to nothing about building houses. And in November of 1950, we moved to Marycrest. Our house had no central heating. There was a potbellied stove in the living room, which was supposed to heat the whole house. We had no electricity. We had a generator that worked to pump the water up because we had no town water, we had well water and a septic tank, so it was pretty primitive. A couple of months later, another family moved in, and gradually it grew to be eleven families, and there were 99 children.

JW:  Where were you in your family?

BR:  I was the oldest. The oldest of ten children. My mother had ten children in ten years and three months, one of whom died, and then she had a four-year hiatus. My youngest brother was born when I was almost 15 years old, so she had eleven children in 15 years, but she did have ten live births in ten years.

JW:  My gosh. Okay, well, I interrupted you. So, you’re telling us about the community?

BR:  Yes.

JW:  And the rules. I want to hear more about the rules of the community.

BR:  Well, the rules were that you did whatever the Pope told you was the right thing to do, whatever the priest told you to do. We not only celebrated our birthdays; we celebrated our feast days. In those days, a Catholic, when he or she was baptized, had to take the name of a saint and I was named Barbara.  St. Barbara was the patron saint of tropical storms, earthquakes, and artillery gunners. That turned out to be very appropriate, at least in my life.

My father’s favorite expression was, “Rally round your priests blindly.” There was a plaque on the wall of our dining room, and the plaque read, “Christ is the head of this house, the unseen host at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.” Talk about Big Brother! Needless to say, we went to Catholic school. But it was apparent to me from a very young age that my mother’s life was very difficult, as were the lives of the other mothers in Mary Crest. And I resolved that I was going to have a life as far removed from my mother’s as it was possible to get when I grew up.

My father worshipped priests and doctors, and I knew I didn’t have a prayer of becoming a priest. So, when I was a teenager, I decided I was going to become a doctor. That was very unusual in those days, and it was very hard to get into medical school. There were quotas on the number of women in medical school classes. No class could have more than 10% women. And when it came time for me to go away to college, I told my father I wanted to go to Barnard, where I figured I’d have a much better chance of getting accepted to medical school, than if I went to all girl’s Catholic college, which is what my father wanted me to do. Of course, my father said “No” and refused to sign my college application to Barnard which is the women’s college of Columbia University.

My parents had a very dear friend named Father Edwin Duffy. He had baptized a lot of my siblings. And luckily, Father Duffy at the time was the chaplain of the Newman Club at Columbia, (the Newman Club was the Catholic Club on campus). So, I called Father Duffy and I begged him to talk to my father. He called my father and persuaded my father that I wouldn’t necessarily become a communist if I went to Barnard. And my father signed my application, and I was accepted. We’re talking the mid 1960s.

I had skipped a grade in grammar school, so I was a year younger than most of my classmates, and then I got accepted into medical school after three years at Barnard. There was something called Professional Option, where if you completed all of your major requirements and got accepted to medical school as a junior, they would give you credit for your first year of medical school as your senior year of college, and you get your BA degree. So, I graduated college in 1965, but I already had a year of medical school, and I graduated medical school in 1968.

JW:  Did you stay in New York for medical school?

BR:  No, because my then husband – I got married just before starting medical school – my then husband was a famous college quarterback at Columbia. He got offers from football teams as well as professional baseball teams, and he wound up signing a very unusual deal with the Cleveland Browns. And that came about because the Cleveland Browns had drafted the Heisman Trophy winner for that year, a man by the name of Ernie Davis, who was a running back. He went out to Cleveland for training at the football camp prior to the season, and while there, he became sick with leukemia. He was cared for by Dr. Austin Weisberger, who was a hematologist/oncologist at Case Western Reserve.

Art Model, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, became very friendly with Dr. Weisberger and Dr. Jack Coy, who was the dean of the medical school. So, when Archie was looking for a place where he could somehow work some kind of deal where he could go to medical school and still play professional football, Art Modell and the dean of the medical school worked out this deal where Archie would be on the reserve squad for the first two years. And then in his junior year, when he had some elective time, they said he could use his elective time to play that football season. Don’t tell me how playing professional football is going to make you a better doctor, but that was the deal they came up with. I like to say I’m the only woman who went to medical school on a football scholarship.

In the meantime, we’d had our first child. I had to go off the oral contraceptive pill because of some complications I developed. And so, when I graduated from college, I actually completed a year of medical school, and I was pregnant with our first child. So, we moved out to Cleveland because Archie and I both were going to Case Western Reserve. I was a year ahead of him, and our daughter Dorothea, named after my mother, but we always called her Dory, was born when I was a sophomore in medical school.

JW:  Wow. And you made it.

BR:  I made it. In my junior year you do your clerkships, your clinical rotations, Archie was traded to the Miami Dolphins, because their quarterback was injured. And the medical school agreed to let me do my OBGYN clerkship at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. So, we moved to Miami with our little girl. We found a babysitter. I would go off to work at the hospital every morning, and Archie would go off to football practice.

It was while I was doing my OBGYN clerkship at Jackson Memorial Hospital that I really became radicalized, because I saw things that just were absolutely appalling. This was before Roe v. Wade. Women came into the emergency room with perforated uteruses, some even partially disemboweled, in septic shock. I learned of one woman who died because she was denied a therapeutic abortion, even though she had end stage heart disease and end stage liver disease. And so, I really started becoming a conscious feminist, and I started reading a lot of books.

After that rotation, we went back to Cleveland, and after my year of internship, we moved to Yale, where Archie and I were both doing our residencies. He was doing a residency in surgery. I was doing a residency in medicine. We moved there in 1969, by which time I was pregnant with our second child. I had a son, and I went back to work when he was a week old, and continued my residency. And while I was at Yale, I was moonlighting at the student health clinic. We wound up leaving Cleveland with lots of debts, because what they paid us wasn’t nearly sufficient to cover our living expenses and our medical school tuition.

So, I was moonlighting at Yale Student Health, and I became friendly with some of the female law students that I saw as patients at Yale Student Health, and they told me that they were bringing a class action suit against the Connecticut abortion laws. By this time, I realized that abortion had to be legalized. It had been legalized in New York City in 1970, and it was legalized in Washington, DC. And actually, at Yale New Haven, a lot of “therapeutic abortions” were being done. Women who could afford it were sent to two psychiatrists. They told the psychiatrist that they would kill themselves if they didn’t get the abortion. Then they got a therapeutic abortion in the hospital under safe conditions.

I was invited to an organizational meeting for this lawsuit, and I went, and it was held in one of these old library reading rooms at Yale New Haven with old Yale alumni looking down on us. And here were about 100woomen, who were outspoken, joyous, and knowledgeable, and they were going to take on the state and knock down these abortion laws. I was absolutely enthralled. When it was over, I went up to one of the leaders, and I introduced myself, and I said, “I want to do anything I can to help you.” And she said, “Oh, well, you’re the medical coordinator for Women vs. Connecticut.”

I started being invited to give talks about abortion all over the state. I had never even seen an abortion, never mind done one. And I said, “I’ve got to learn more about this.” So, I went to the chief of OBGYN, Dr. Nathan Case, who had started this program allowing women to get safe abortions. Luckily, he was an alumnus of Columbia, so he knew who my husband was. I told him I wanted to do an elective to learn how to do abortions, and he said, “Sure.” So, I learned how to do first trimester abortions while I was a medical resident at Yale New Haven Hospital. And then, at the end of our two years there, we moved to Bethesda, MD;this is during the Vietnam War and all male physicians were being drafted, and most were being sent to Vietnam.

There were programs in the Public Health Service where you could use that as your service requirement. Archie was lucky enough to get one of these positions at the National Heart and Lung Institute in the Cardiac Surgery Branch. They were called Yellow Berets to differentiate them from the Green Berets. I got a job at the NIH also that didn’t involve a draft deferment, because in those days, women who had children under the age of 18 couldn’t join the armed forces if they wanted to, so I couldn’t even have volunteered.

But by then, I had met other women through my work with Women Vs. Connecticut, and we started meeting and strategizing, and we wrote to every woman’s group we could think of, and called for a big meeting in July of 1971, because we wanted to launch a national movement. We didn’t want to keep going state by state. And we knew that the Supreme Court was hearing a suit in November of that year that might overturn abortion laws. Although none of us was terribly optimistic about this, we thought if we brought enough pressure to bear, maybe our voices would be heard.

Over a thousand women came to that meeting in July of 1971 in New York City, and I was one of the keynote speakers. By then, I had already moved to Bethesda to start my work at the National Institute of Health, and WONAAC, the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition, set up the national office in Washington DC. They set up another national office in San Francisco, and we called for demonstrations in both those places for November 20, 1971.  I was the keynote speaker at that demonstration. My mother, all of my sisters but one, and my children, all marched in that demonstration on November 20th.

And through these women who were active feminists, some of whom were leftists, some of whom were members of the Socialist Workers Party or the Young Socialist Alliance, I became involved in the anti-war movement.

JW:  Your mother? I was thinking, what did your mother think of all this?

BR:  My mother’s marching along arm in arm with her daughters, and she looks at me and she said, “Barbara, Father Duffy should see me now.”

JW:  And was your dad knowledgeable about all this?

BR:  He knew what was going on, but it was the early ’70s, and people were a lot more liberal then. He never stopped being a Catholic, and later in life he became a rabid Catholic and anti-choice. But at that time, he could still be in the same room with me.

After my two years at the NIH, I moved back to Boston. In the meantime, Archie and I got divorced. I had changed, he hadn’t. He wanted me to be the nice, obedient, compliant, good Catholic girl he married, and I was just the opposite.

For a while there, things got very tense because I was seeing another man. I had begged him for at least a year to divorce me, and he wouldn’t. I knew the only way he would consider divorcing me was if I had an affair with another man. And I started having an affair with someone in the anti-war movement. When he found out about it, he started having me followed by a private detective. One night after dinner, he told me he was taking the kids out for ice cream but he flew them to his parents’ house in Massachusetts.

I was served with papers the next day, by a process server accusing me of everything from plotting the overthrow of the United States government, to committing adultery in front of my children of tender ages, and asking for custody of the children on the grounds that I was an unfit mother. So, I consulted a lawyer, and he told me, “Look, in Maryland, if it can be proven that a woman committed adultery, that’s prima facie evidence that she’s an unfit mother.”

It wasn’t true for men, but if a woman had slept with a man outside of marriage, she was an unfit mother. He said, “So you will lose, and you can appeal but it’s going to take years and years and years, and will cost you tens and tens of thousands of dollars. You can take the children and flee the country next time you have visitation, but I’d advise you to go somewhere that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the US. And you’ll have to stay there till they’re older” he said. “Or, you can try and persuade Archie to reconcile.” After much negotiation and tears and promises, Archie agreed to get the children and we started living together again.

But he wanted me to give up all of my activities in the women’s movement, all of my activities in the anti-war movement, give up my cardiology fellowship at the Brigham because he didn’t know where he was going to be continuing his cardiac surgery residency. I agreed to all those things. I just said, “Let’s wait and see if you get matched somewhere in Boston. If you don’t, then I’ll give up my fellowship. But if you do, then we’d be in the same city and it wouldn’t be a problem.” I did all of those things that he wanted, but I was miserable.

He finally realized that this wasn’t going to work and he agreed to see a marriage counselor. And the marriage counselor convinced him that it wasn’t going to work, and that we should have an amicable divorce. There were very few places where you get a quick divorce in those days. Haiti was one of them. So, he flew off to Haiti. I signed some papers and we decided to alternate custody of the children. So, he had the children for the part of the year that remained before we all moved. He eventually moved to New York and I moved to Boston. And when I moved to Boston, I took the children with me.

When he moved to New York, he met a woman and they got married. They very quickly had twin daughters, and she had two sons from her first marriage. So, he’s living in an apartment in New York with his wife and four kids, because as I said, they very quickly had twin daughters. And Nancy, that was his wife’s name, didn’t want to be taking care of my kids in addition to the four she was already taking care of. Archie was never there. I mean, cardiac surgeons are never home. The weird thing was, she used to call me on the phone and spend 45 minutes to an hour complaining to me that he was never around. I felt like saying, “Nancy, your first husband was a surgical resident. What about this is news to you?”

So, just before my two years at the NIH was up, shortly after inauguration day, I actually spoke at the last mass anti-Vietnam war demonstration on the grounds of the Lincoln monument, the day of Nixon’s inauguration in 1973. My picture with all these microphones in front of me went out all over the wire serrvices. A few days later, the Roe vs. Wade decision came down and abortion was legalized all over the country, and not long after that, the Vietnam war ended. So, two things that had absolutely taken up all of my free time for the previous two years had come to an end. I knew that it wasn’t over, that there would be constant attacks against abortion and the right to abortion, which turned out to be the case.

At the end of June in 1973, I moved to Boston to do my cardiology fellowship, I continued doing abortions. When I went to DC, I used to do abortions at Preterm. I told them I would work for nothing, and they would save that money and use it to pay for abortions for women who couldn’t afford it.

JW: So, you became a cardiologist also?

BR: Yes. I did my cardiology fellowship at the Brigham & Womrn’s Hospital. I was the first female accepted into the Gorlin fellowship at the Brigham, and when I finished my fellowship, I went to Hershey, Pennsylvania for two years. I was on the full-time faculty at Penn State’s medical school. And in the meantime, I had gotten involved with, of all things, my babysitter, who was a man. Although we never married, we moved to Hershey in 1975 with my two children. His name was Ned Bresnahan, and he moved with us and continued being the house husband, even though we weren’t married.

Then, we decided to have a child and I got pregnant. I remember I told my chief of cardiology that I was expecting a baby and I wasn’t getting married. And he said, “Barbara, do you want to be known as the Hester Prynne of American cardiology?” Remember Hester Prynne, the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter? I just laughed. So, we had our daughter and we named her Meagan. But much like my father, who became a very bad alcoholic, Ned became an alcoholic and was abusing drugs, so we split up. And he told me, “If you break up with me, I will harass you for the rest of your life.” He made a good run at that, which is another whole story. I wound up back in court again.

JW:  Did you continue working with whatever the clinics were where you were?

BR:  Yes, when I moved to Rhode Island, I started moonlighting at the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic.

JW:  But you were doing your “real job” on the side, and taking care of three children.

BR:  Yes. Taking care of three children. Working full time as a cardiologist in private practice. I was also on the clinical faculty at Brown, the voluntary faculty. So, I did a lot of teaching at the bedside, and in the cardiac catheterization laboratory. I would teach fellows how to do these procedures. I would be the attending physician in the cardiac care unit. I would make attending rounds. And now I have emeritus status at Brown because I retired in 2016.

JW:  And did you continue to march or stay involved in the movement in any way?

BR:  Yes. We had a pro-choice demonstration in Providence last spring and I spoke at that. And there have been other pro-choice demonstrations in Rhode Island over the years. I just had a memoir published, and in the memoir, I go into great detail about my years as a pro-choice and anti-war activist.

JW:  Oh, really? Oh, I need to know the name.

BR:  The name is the Doctor Broad: A Mafia Love Story. A couple of years after moving to Rhode Island, I became rather infamous because I was taking care of the head of the New England Mafia, an elderly gentleman. And it was my testimony that he was too sick to stand trial that kept him out of prison for the last three and a half years of his life. That caused me all kinds of trouble with the newspaper in Rhode Island, the Providence Journal, with the FBI, with the state police, with the Providence police. And there were doctors who stopped referring me patients because I was taking care of this infamous mobster.

But I would say when I graduated medical school, I took the Hippocratic Oath. And central to the Hippocratic Oath is, number one, I will do no harm. Number two, I will put my patients’ interests ahead of my own. Not my patients who don’t have a criminal record, not my patients who aren’t facing capital charges. Anyone who entrusts their health and their heart to my care, I will put their interest ahead of my own. And that’s what I did. I got a lot of flak for it. I got arrested on a trumped up breaking and entering charge. It was a rough three and a half years.

JW:  You’ve had an adventurous career.

BR:  When people say to me, “How did you have the balls” excuse my French, “to do that?” I said, “Well, you don’t know my background.” My background is I was gassed during demonstrations. I was almost trampled by horses during demonstrations. I had an FBI file dating back to the 1970s. The FBI came and interviewed me at my job at the NIH. They came and talked to me in my office in Providence.

JW:  So, it’s just how it goes. Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing. Well, what would you say about how your work, obviously starting many years ago, maybe it’s from that experience that you had where you saw women with perforated uteruses, et cetera. How did that affect your whole career?

BR:  Well, I think it was the beginning of my feminism. I think I was born an unconscious feminist, but my conscious feminist really blossomed when I did that rotation in OBGYN at Jackson Memorial hospital and saw what women were subjected to. And I did a lot of reading. I read The Dialectic of Sex. I read Sexual Politics, by Kate Millett. I read all the feminist newspapers. My favorite was, The Turn of the Screwed. Another one that was called, Pissed Off Pink.

Before I got involved in the feminist movement, I went through a period where I was extremely depressed, and I think it was because I was angry, but I was turning that anger inwards. And once I became a conscious feminist, I could direct that anger outwards by being an activist, by marching in demonstrations. There was one day, I think it was in 1972, where I spoke at demonstrations in Boston, New York, and Washington, all in one day. It was crazy. But one of the most exciting demonstrations I spoke at was in New York City. There were 100,000 people, and I’m up on the speaker’s platform, and I happen to glance over to my right and who am I standing next to, but John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

JW:  Wow, that’s amazing. Is there any particular memory you have of one of your speeches beyond that anecdote that you think you want to share?

BR:  Yes, actually, the first time I was asked to speak, it was at a hearing that the Connecticut legislature was holding. They were debating whether or not to reform the Connecticut abortion laws. Again, this was before Roe vs. Wade. Busloads of Catholic school kids were bused into these hearings. They had to move them to a big auditorium. And I figured, well, in for a penny, in for a pound. So, when it was my turn to speak, I got up and I said, “A popular medical dictionary defines disease as literally a lack of ease, and venereal disease, as one usually acquired through sexual intercourse. It is apparent, therefore, that unwanted pregnancy is the most common venereal disease. It is associated with immense physical, mental, social and economic suffering. In seeking to be cured of this disease, women throughout history have risked pain, mutilation and death in numbers that stagger the imagination. Today, when the cure for unwanted pregnancy is statistically safer than carrying that pregnancy to term, abortion is still widely withheld by antiquated laws and religious tenets not shared by the majority of people .” It was only a four-minute speech, but I was interrupted by screams and boos. Security had to rush me off the stage when I finished.

JW:  Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing. That speech still holds today, sadly.

BR:  Maternal mortality plummeted after Roe vs. Wade because most maternal mortality had to do with botched abortions.

JW:  As we wrap up, is there anything you’d like to add?

BR:  Well, here’s a funny story. When COVID hit, I started volunteering for the Rhode Island Medical Reserve Corps and we did, I don’t know how many, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of COVID vaccinations and COVID testing. Last summer, I helped staff the field hospital at the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, and that was a lot of fun. It was like old style medicine. I loved it. No electronic health records. It didn’t matter if they had insurance, they weren’t going to get billed anyway. But there were some medical students who were observing and they were following me around and at the end of one of the days there, two young women, a medical student and a physician’s assistant came up said to me, “Dr Roberts, do you have any advice for us?” And I said, “Yes, I do.” They said, “What is it?” I said, “Don’t take shit from anybody.”