Looking Into the Life of Nevada’s First Black Pediatrician


When Beverly Neyland was growing up in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, she came to realize that before her parents took her and her brother and sister on a long car trip, they had to know well in advance where they would stay. Even when the family was dead tired and a motel’s neon sign flashed “VACANCY,” her father wouldn’t stop unless it was lodging he and his wife planned on.

The young African American girl didn’t know why, just figured it was one of those parental prerogatives. But many years later, in 2018, when Green Book opened in movie theaters, she got a good sense why. An Oscar-winning film named after a real Jim Crow-era travel guide that highlights safe places for Blacks to stay and eat while on the road, the movie tells the story of an unlikely friendship that develops between an African American classical pianist and his white chauffeur/bodyguard as they experience a concert tour chock full of racism.

“When I asked my parents about the Green Book, they explained it,” said Dr. Beverly Neyland, now a professor of pediatrics at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV. Created by Victor Hugo Green, the Negro Motorist Green Book was then the most popular book aimed at Black drivers in America, detailing where they could spend the night and dine without being harassed or worse. “In our travels to visit relatives, it was always coordinated with rest areas (learned from the book) available for Blacks,” Neyland said, noting that gas station restrooms generally weren’t open to them so toilet paper was carried for side-of-the road use. 

What Neyland, now in her 70s and the first Black pediatrician in Nevada, has experienced and accomplished in an America that hasn’t always been welcoming is a slice of history that the Women in Medicine and Science group at the medical school recognizes can be celebrated anytime an example is needed of an American who’s made a difference.

Born in her grandparents’ farmhouse in Gloster, Mississippi, Neyland has achieved much in her life, becoming chief of pediatrics at University Medical Center (UMC); chief of pediatrics at Sunrise Hospital; clinical director, UMC Lied Ambulatory Care Clinic; a member of the Nevada Board of Medical Examiners; chair of the medical examiners’ investigative committee, president of the Nevada chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics; president of the pediatric section of the National Medical Association; chairman of the Governor’s Child and Maternal Health Advisory Board; chairman of the UNR School of Medicine Admission Committee; and chair of the Student Progress Committee as well as a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. 

“I’ve enjoyed being busy,” said Neyland, who was honored in Las Vegas as a Woman of Valor by B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization.

Parental encouragement

Neyland says what made a huge difference in her life was the attitude of her late parents, Leedell and Della Neyland, toward education. Her father worked his way to a Ph.D. and her mother to a master’s degree while their children were growing up. Her father became a history professor and later the Florida A&M University dean of arts and sciences and vice president of academic affairs. Her mother, an early preschool educator, also taught at Florida A&M and was present with President Lyndon Johnson in the White House Rose Garden for the signing of the legislation that began the nation’s Head Start program.

“They believed their children could be whatever they wanted to be,” she said of her parents, who let their daughter read mysteries by Agatha Christie as long as she also read Shakespeare and other classical literature. Her younger brother became an attorney and her younger sister, who had cerebral palsy, became a college counselor and academic advisor. 

By the age of 6, Neyland, who says she loved ballet as a little girl, already showed a scientific bent by taking radios apart and putting them back together. She said her sister’s condition made her want to become a pediatrician so she could help youngsters overcome medical conditions. Growing up in Tallahassee, Florida, wasn’t always easy. Restaurants were segregated, so were movie theaters and clothing stores. “My best friend and I did our share of protesting and got some good results,” she recalled.

She never has let the resentment she felt about some people’s behavior toward African Americans color her entire view of mankind. “My father told me there were some people who acted badly, but he was generally positive about people. He realized, as I do, that you can’t change things for the better if you’re always angry. You can’t let negativity take over your life.” 

After graduating with honors from high school and then Bennett College, a small liberal arts school in North Carolina, she was accepted at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, one of the nation’s oldest and largest historically Black academic health science centers. There, she met Joseph Thornton, who would go on to become the first Black colorectal surgeon in Nevada and a longtime friend. While still a student at Meharry, she spent a full semester at the University of Zagreb in Yugoslavia studying pediatrics in a socialist setting. “Even in a socialist country, I learned that the better off you are financially, the better medical treatment you receive. Gypsies didn’t receive medical coverage at all.”

After completing a pediatric residency through UCLA, Neyland found a job opening in Las Vegas in 1974 with a multispecialty group. Though that job didn’t turn out to be what she wanted — as the only pediatrician, she was on call 24-7 for three months with no mention of help to come — she soon was working with a local pediatrician, Dr. Anthony Carter. “We shared an office for eight years on just a handshake,” she said. 

Like her friend Thornton and Dr. Kenneth Westfield, the first black ophthalmologist in Southern Nevada, Neyland was heartened by the fact that the Las Vegas medical community was welcoming, not letting race get in the way of professionalism.

The young doctor enjoyed solving medical puzzles. She remembers a case where she finally determined that a child had rickets, a vitamin D childhood deficiency disease that had largely been overcome early in the 20th century. “I worked with someone at UCLA and we found that the child had an old disease in modern times.” 

Full circle

Neyland, who’s proud of the fact that generations of former patients now bring their children to her, has dealt with more than medicine in her 22 years of private practice. “I would see a single mother with five children who was always on time with well-child checkups and followed through with treatments, but she was constantly complaining about her children’s teachers. I asked if she had been in to talk to the teachers and she said no. We talked and I advised her to make appointments and to go to talk to each teacher and observe classes. She became very active at the school. Her children then either went to college or technical school. It made me feel good. I also remember dealing with a small child who tickled me, made me laugh. She said she didn’t like Black people. I said, ‘Don’t you like me?’ She said, ‘Sure. You’re brown.’” 

That Neyland became a faculty member and chair of the admissions committee at the UNR School of Medicine (it then had a satellite campus in Las Vegas), as well as chief of pediatrics at both UMC and Sunrise Hospital, didn’t surprise Dr. Scott Denton. He worked with her at all three institutions and later when they were both faculty at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. He now works with Nevada Health Centers.

“She’s the perfect person to head something and to deal with kids,” Denton said. “She’s just very calm and collected, gets along with everybody. Her patients love her. She’s a real people person who uses humor to diffuse difficult situations. There are a lot of egos in the medical field and she’s able to handle that when she’s leading a group, no doubt because she’s intellectually pretty gifted. She always speaks her mind, but in a very diplomatic, articulate manner, delineating her points well. She’s always able to cut through the noise to get to the point.”

At both the UNR School of Medicine and the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, she has worked to make the student body more diverse. “You should want doctors who look like all of America. Things are getting better that way now.” 

When Neyland isn’t working she’s generally traveling somewhere in the world — Kathmandu, Egypt, Europe, the Great Wall of China. It’s difficult to find a place she hasn’t been. 

One thing you can be sure of, said Thornton, is that Neyland will wear high heels wherever she goes. “She even wore high heels when she walked for miles at the Great Wall of China, and when she went with my wife and I to a Club Med. It’s got to hurt.”

Said Neyland, laughing: “High heels are my style. I like them. When they hurt my feet, I’ll let my heels go.”