Black History— The Honorable Diane E. Watson, PhD
This month, CRCHD staff will be blogging about influential black doctors, scientists, and medical innovators, as well as rising stars from our portfolio. If you would like to nominate someone to be honored, please email CUREsupplements (at) NIH (dot) gov
Diane Edith Watson
Diane Edith Watson was born in Los Angeles, California on November 12, 1933 to a father who worked as a police officer, and a mother who worked the night shift at the post office. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in education from UCLA with a minor in sociology in 1956 and became a public school teacher in Los Angeles. Having never been taught black history as a child, she developed a black studies curriculum for her students. Diane inherited a wanderlust from her family members, who regaled her with stories of trip to Shanghai or other trips abroad, and took a position in Okinawa, Japan, teaching the children on the military base. She later went to France.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, Watson took night classes, obtaining a Master’s degree in school psychology in 1967. She soon became a school psychologist, and worked for child welfare, mental health, and attendance. Watson also worked to develop curriculum for high school students, especially in the healthcare field. “We predicted that there were ten thousand jobs that we didn’t’ even have names for… …We never envisioned the kind of high technology there is today, but we did know that the health field would be growing rapidly” she said.
While working as a school psychologist, Watson was encouraged to run for school board, and was elected to the board in 1975. In 1976, the California State Supreme Court mandated the integration of California schools. As the sole African American on the board, Watson led this battle. “I believed in integration because it’s broadening diversity makes impressions on you.” The biggest debate surrounding the unification of schools was bussing kids from one school to another, which Watson advocated for, garnering her much media attention. “We cannot ignore the disparity in resources that continue to plague many of our school systems, especially those serving predominantly inner-city minority and impoverished children,” she said. Eventually, bussing became mandated by the courts. Watson would go on to say, "historically, the judicial branch has often been the sole protector of the rights of minority groups against the will of the popular majority.”
In 1978, she ran for California State Senate, and served in the role for 20 years. During this time, she was chair of the health and human services committee. She became a major advocate for AIDS patient protections, mental illness treatment, and healthcare access for the poor. She also obtained a PhD in Educational Administration in 1987, with a dissertation entitled, “The Effects of the Desegregation Controversy on Trustee Governance in the Los Angeles Unified School District 1975-1980.”
In 1998, she was appointed Ambassador to Micronesia by Bill Clinton, and then won a special election to fill a vacant seat in the 33rd Congressional District. While serving as a US representative, she co-sponsored legislation including the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act of 2008 and the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, and continued to advocate for appropriations to fight HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, arguing that global health is not only a humanitarian issue, but a national security one as well. Watson retired from her position in 2011 in order to spend more time with her 100 year old mother.