Home > William Simmons, MD | GMS Immediate Past President & Associate Professor University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

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PUM Black History Salutes: Immediate Past President, Gateway Medical Society

Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine


 William Simmons, MD | GMS Immediate Past President & Associate Professor University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine


Coming from rural South Carolina, Dr. Simmons’ path was filled with firsts.  He was the first in his family to go to college, medical school, and study abroad.  His insistence on education for his family motivated him to paved the road for his daughter and 9 of the children of his brothers and sisters to follow behind him with a college education.  He continued paving the road for others, achieving his B.A. at Carleton College in Northfield Minn.  He was the only African American male in the 3rd ever graduating class of Mayo Clinic Medical School.  He was the first Black Chief Resident in Pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital and went on to do a second residency in Anesthesiology at George Washington University and two fellowships in Pediatric Anesthesia and Pediatric Critical Care at the University of Pittsburgh, then invited on staff.  Dr. Simmons became board certified in the Anesthesiology in the 90’s at a time when there was less than 300 Board Certified African Americans in Anesthesiology.   He received additional training Certificates in Medical Leadership from the University of Rochester, Simon School of Business and Executive Faculty Development from Morehouse University.  The total African American doctors nationwide still remain appallingly low 38,000 out of 980,000 (4%) in the country.  Dr. Simmons is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology with a duel academic appointment at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.  He serves as a member of the Physician Inclusion Council, co-chairs the Retention Committee for UPMC/PITT.  He is the Diversity Officer in the Department of Anesthesiology, and is the Immediate Past President of Gateway Medical Society (GMS), Inc., a component society of the NMA. Dr. Simmons is the Chair of the Journey to Medicine Academic Mentorship Program,  winner of several humanitarian awards for his volunteer work and in 2016 alone, he has received honors from the Jefferson Awards Foundation, a Certificate of Special Congressional recognition, University of Pittsburgh Faculty honoree for Exemplary Service at the Honors Convocation in 2015, 2016, and 2017 and he received the highest award for service in the National Medical Association, the Scroll of Merit.



PUM: Tell us more about your position at UPMC and what do you enjoy most about your career?


Dr. Simmons: I’m a Pediatrician and an Anesthesiologist with critical care training. In Pittsburgh, I’m an associate professor in anesthesiology and have a dual appointment as a clinical educator with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC Shadyside. My “classroom” is the operating room at Shadyside Hospital where I care for patients and teach others as a supervisory attending. Training the best and brightest young minds in both the nursing and medical schools is a great and enjoyable charge. I absolutely love what I do.


A fun fact about my almost 30-year career is that I had many firsts in my life. I was the first to go to college in my family, the only Black male in my medical school class at Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, the first Black chief resident in Medstar Georgetown University Hospital’s pediatric residency program and among few Black anesthesiologists that lecture locally, nationally, and internationally on current issues in anesthesiology and pediatrics.


I’m passionate about the care I administer and the outside community work I’m involved in.


PUM: What really made a difference in your life to help you become successful? Your formula for success?


Dr. Simmons: Growing up, there weren’t many kids in rural South Carolina who attended college. My desire was always toward medicine, even though it didn’t seem like an achievable goal to some. I got a life changing opportunity to be in the Earl Jackman Relocation Program, which had a goal of relocating potentially high-achieving students to families and better schools in the North and West. Through the program, I was paired with a loving family in Bozeman, Montana, who I’m still close to, where I finished my last two years of high school and received mentorship. After graduation, I attended Carleton College and Mayo Clinic School of Medicine.


Religion and significant members of the Bozeman community who invested in my personal and academic pursuits have also been a major part of my success.


The formula for success is mentorship. It worked for me and it’s been proven to work for others through a special academic program I’m involved with called Journey to Medicine.


Journey to Medicine is an academic mentorship program designed to create a pipeline of academically prepared Black male students in 6th through 12th grade to augment what they learned in school to make them college ready with additional science, technology, engineering and math training. It launched seven years ago and we presently have 110 students enrolled. Our first group finished high school in 2016, all of whom went to the college of their choice, and eight of whom have the equivalent to fully paid tuition.



PUM: What sort of advice do you have for people interested in pursuing careers like yours?


Dr. Simmons: Developing relationships and mentorships with those in the medical field and cleaving to people that care for you and have your best interest in mind is essential. I believe in mentorship and am willing to encourage students of all fields to motivate them to be their best.


Also, seeking out [summer] programs where you will be exposed to the medical environment and have opportunities to conduct research is important to your development and shows interest in the field.


All of this helps when you’re applying to medical school.


PUM: What sort of challenges do you face and how do you overcome some of your obstacles?


Dr. Simmons: A huge challenge is making people understand and respect African Americans as being competent and capable of providing the best care, especially if you’re Black practicing in a predominantly White hospital/organization.


When I walk into a patient’s room, I’m prepared for the reality that they see me as a Black man, but by the time I walk out, they see me as their anesthesiologist and know they’re going to receive world-class care.


My approach to overcoming these obstacles is implicit in the things I do and teach. It involves being extremely knowledgeable and professional in every aspect of my being, my verbal and nonverbal communication, attire, etc.  We have an uphill battle to fight against stereotypes.



PUM: How do you celebrate Black History month and what are some significant events and milestones in U.S. Black history that you reflect on during this time?


Dr. Simmons: The Black History of Pittsburgh is so important and so rich. Many people, youth especially, aren’t aware of the monumental achievements that have taken place here in Western Pennsylvania. It’s important that we highlight these stories.


Three significant milestones in U.S. Black History that come to mind are related to the work of the Freedom House Ambulance Service, Martin Delany and Ellen Paige Parker.


The Freedom House Ambulance Service is Pittsburgh’s first mobile emergency medicine program. Dr. Safer, from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Anesthesiology, trained unemployed and underemployed Black men and women to be the technicians on a new Ambulance service. They initially   served the Black community. However, they became so successful that people of all races called for their services across Pittsburgh. It would later become the national model for emergency medical transport ambulance care.



Delany was the first Black major in the Union Army and a physician in Pittsburgh, but he faced numerous challenges. Although born a free man in West Virginia, he had to attend school in Pittsburgh because in the early 1800s, educating a Black man in West Virginia was a crime punishable by death. He briefly attended Harvard, but was unable to return because the White parents and students protested that having Blacks in their class was tainting their degree.


Despite these setbacks, Delany came back to Pittsburgh, was mentored by a successful White doctor in town and went on to have a successful medical practice in Pittsburgh. During the civil war, his heroism got him a field commission to the rank of Major, the highest ranking Black officer in the Union Army at that time.


Parker is another Pittsburgh native who aspired to be a nurse. She attended Mercy Douglas in Philadelphia after being turned down by every nursing school in Pittsburgh because they did not admit Blacks at that time. After graduating and having a great career as a nurse for many years, Parker returned to Pittsburgh during a different climate and taught at the same nursing schools that turned her down as a student years before. 


After working in Philadelphia for many years, Parker returned to Pittsburgh, attained her master’s from Pitt, then began teaching there, the same school where she was turned down.



PUM: Who are some of the African Americans that you feel have positively helped to contribute to Black history? How have they influenced and motivated you to make a difference in our world?


Dr. Simmons: Recently, I researched the history of African Americans of prominence in medicine in Pittsburgh history. They were all very strong individuals who didn’t let obstacles keep them from providing the much needed care for the Black population in the city. They took care of sick patients in their homes because it wasn’t until the 1950 and 1960’s that Black doctors started getting hospital privileges in Pittsburgh.


One doctor who stood out the most was Dr. Oswald Nickens, the first Black obstetrics and gynecology specialist to join the staff at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC; first Black ob-gyn to join West Penn Hospital; founder of the first school for pregnant teenagers in Pittsburgh; and a founding member of the first Black-owned bank in Pittsburgh, New World National Bank.


Nickens and a few other notable physicians like Drs. Earl B. Smith, Charles Bookert, Matthew Haley, and Edward Hales were community leaders who started and were part of the Gateway Medical Society, a component society of the National Medical Association, the oldest and largest Black medical organization in the country.


To this day, Gateway raises a voice for physicians, nurses, and dentists of color and those of any color who care for the socio-economically challenged and underserved patients in the greater Pittsburgh community. I’m honored that they selected me to be a recipient of the 2017 Dr. Oswald Nickens Physician of the Year Award, a recognition named after such a great man that I highly regard.



PUM: Diversity is a word often used in corporate America. What are your thoughts about diversity in the workplace, and how it is implemented in your particular field?


Dr. Simmons: Anesthesiology, like many subspecialties in medicine, is a difficult field to get into, especially at UPMC because of the extremely high caliber of training and medical specialists here. The nationally competitive nature of UPMC’s program makes the selection process difficult.


In an effort to increase the diversity in these extremely high quality programs, I work with the graduate medical education office at UPMC and attend to national minority student meetings. At the meetings, I recruit students of color to consider the University of Pittsburgh residency programs and fellowships for their future academic training.




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