Born into a family of teachers in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the deeply segregated South, Bill Womack, M.D., Res. ’66, knew what he wanted to do from a young age.
It all began with a nurse named Marion, a good family friend. Womack was about 5 when he made an important announcement to his mother.
“I told her, ‘When I get older, I’m going to marry Marion, and I’m going to be a doctor,” says Womack. “She just said, ‘Oh, really?’ She never questioned me after that, and I never wavered. I was like a one-note samba player.”
Womack was an academic star. He skipped over several grades, graduating from high school at 15. At 19, after majoring in chemistry and math at Lincoln University — a historically black college and university — he graduated as valedictorian. Then, just as Womack was preparing to apply to medical school, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Womack entered the University of Virginia as one of only two African-Americans in an otherwise all-white class.
The experience wasn’t easy or pleasant. At the time, there were only two restaurants that served African-Americans in the entire town of Charlottesville. The students were divided on the topic of how much they wanted to integrate. And Womack, for the first time, felt discouraged by some of his teachers.
“I was taking a course in chemistry my first year and the instructor said to me, ‘Mr. Womack, if you don’t do well in this course, I won’t be surprised. All of this work with pathology and chemistry is very hard,’” says Womack. “That year, I was an honor roll student.”
Another New Frontier
The chair of the psychiatry department at the University of Virginia was much more encouraging, suggesting that Womack apply to the UW School of Medicine for his residency.
When Womack arrived in Seattle, Washington state felt like a foreign country; he had never been so far from home. He wasn’t sure he should pursue psychiatry, either. “I thought about becoming an obstetrician because I thought I’d be good at delivering babies,” Womack says. “But I liked listening to people’s stories, and I was pretty good at hearing them.”
After a stint in the Navy, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander, a good friend and UW faculty member suggested that Womack join UW Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
“He knew they didn’t have any people of color,” says Womack, “and he thought that it would be a good opportunity for me. I was nervous about it, but I trusted him. I knew he had my best interests at heart.”
The Changing Skyline
In 1969, Womack became the first African-American to join the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. In the 40 years that followed, he engaged in teaching, research and clinical work as a UW professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UW Medical Center, chief of the Division of Psychiatry and director of community mental health at Harborview Medical Center, and consulting faculty member at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic and at Seattle Children’s. And, when he wasn’t working, he devoted himself to community organizing.
Womack, now a UW associate professor emeritus, is proud of the part he played to encourage more diversity in the workplace and to engage people in conversations.
“Diversity is so important to learning,” he says. “And it’s hard to know how to handle it. There are people who don’t want to discuss it. There are people who don’t want to talk about other people’s differences.”
There will be friction; that’s part of the process. “I think most of the faculty recognize how important diversity is,” says Womack. “They want it to work. But it’s hard. It takes time, effort and desire.”
Womack retired in 2015 and moved into a Seattle retirement community. From his room, he has a view of the changing city skyline. “I’ve enjoyed being able to watch things grow and change,” says Womack. “And I have a feeling that it can only get better.”