Elizabeth R. Harrison, M.D. ’26, one of the first women to graduate from the School of Medicine and pediatrician to three generations of New Haven children, celebrated her 103rd birthday on November 2.
A medical career seemed a natural choice for a young woman growing up with a father who did research in embryology. “I was just immersed in all this,” Harrison says of medicine, during an interview at the Whitney Center in Hamden, Conn., where she lives. She was the daughter of Yale zoologist Ross Granville Harrison, M.D., Ph.D., known for developing an early method for growing animal cells in vitro in the early 1900s. Having been exposed to her father’s work, Harrison had no qualms about performing her first human dissection in medical school. “All you did was take a scalpel and move the muscle and isolate it and report it on the chart. There wasn’t anything to be squeamish about,” she recalls. “My father had taken us tadpole hunting and we’d worked with live animals, so I didn’t think anything of it.”
Harrison was born in Baltimore in 1899. Her German-born mother spoke five languages, and Elizabeth Harrison grew up speaking German and English. According to her nephew, Ross Granville Harrison III, Harrison was visiting Germany on the eve of World War I and found herself trapped there by war for three years. She returned to New Haven to graduate from Hillhouse High School, began college at Smith, then transferred to the University of Chicago.
When asked if she faced prejudice as a woman in medicine, Harrison says that whatever problems she encountered, she kept to herself. “If I had shot my mouth off, I never would have gotten anywhere. I was very reticent about my experiences.” Her nephew says Harrison has spoken obliquely of feeling ostracized or passed over during medical school and in her early years in practice, but “as she would say, she doesn’t like to be a crab.”
Harrison lived above her Bradley Street office. Never married, she maintained a very busy practice. “She was a spectacular diagnostician,” her nephew says. “She would take one look at a kid and tell you what was wrong with him. She had instincts that were bigger than life.”
He says Harrison still saw patients into her 90s. When he took her to celebrate her 102nd birthday with a dinner at Mory’s, she was not just visiting a Yale landmark but also returning to her childhood home; what is now Mory’s was faculty housing when her father was named chair of Yale’s zoology department, her nephew said, and the family lived there from 1907 to 1911. Harrison still very much enjoys music (although she claims she “flunked” piano). She hummed along when a group of Whiffenpoof alumni sang at the Whitney Center last fall.
We are sorry to report that Dr. Harrison died on January 5, as this issue of Yale Medicine was going to press. A memorial service at Battell Chapel is planned for February 15.