The Barbie doll was born in March 1959, marking this month her 50th birthday. She began life as a beach beauty and fashion model in a zebra-striped swimsuit. By 1965, she scored many careers including American Airlines Stewardess, Nurse, Teacher, and Astronaut. In 2006, USA Today named her one of the Top 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived.

It took 28 years for Barbie to morph into Doctor Barbie, shown in the photo on the left. Note the tagline printed on the front bottom of the box: “She changes from doctor to glamorous date!”

This first Doctor Barbie came only as a blond Caucasian version. Some important Barbie social history: no doll was named “Barbie” with black skintone until 1980. Before that year, Barbie had a lovely black girlfriend named Christie, but Mattel took 21 long years to decide that “Barbie” could be black, too.

By 1995, Doctor Barbie became Dr. Barbie, in a more serious incarnation of the profession.

That year, the professional racial disparity between white and black dolls melted away: the 1995 Dr. Barbie came in an African-American version pictured on the right. Here she is, a more serious doctor — no tulle-trimmed nighttime change of outfit for her. This doll, probably conceived as a pediatrician by the designer, came with triplets and a doctor bag complete with blood pressure checker, syringe, reflex hammer, and ear checker, among other practice essentials.

It was 1995, so the doctor’s bag also included a beeper — but of course, no electronic medical record, only a clipboard.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: To celebrate Barbie’s 35th anniversary, I wrote the book Contemporary Barbie where I explored the evolution of the modern doll from 1980 to the (then) present. (The book is now out-of-print). Barbie’s career path took her to high places, including Astronaut in 1986, Army Officer in 1989, Presidential candidate in 1992, Chef in 1996, and Star Trek space explorer in 1996.

In the mid-1960s, only 6% of medical students were women. By the mid-1970s, the number of women graduating from U.S. medical schools rose to 16%. By 2004, women represented nearly 50% of matriculating medical students. Today, women are roughly at parity with men among entering medical students.

Note that in 2004, black women accounted for nearly 70% of all black applicants to medical schools.

There’s still a long way to go in bringing more African-American clinicians into the American health care delivery system. Doing so would help bridge the chasm of health disparities between Caucasians and African-Americans in the nation.

Barbie’s been ahead of this curve for decades. Congratulations, and Happy Birthday, Dr. Barbie.