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School of Medicine holds “100 Years of Women” celebration

Medicine@Yale, 2018 - June July


Symposium highlights a century of achievements in all facets of science and medicine

Hundreds of faculty, students, alumni, staff, and friends of the School of Medicine gathered on June 1 for Celebration and Reflection, a symposium to commemorate 100 years of women at YSM.

Sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine (SWIM), the Minority Organization for Retention & Expansion (MORE), and the Dean’s Office, the daylong program kicked off Alumni Weekend. Included were presentations by faculty and alumnae on the history of women in medicine, basic science, clinical science and practice, and current issues facing women. “The breadth and depth of the accomplishments of this impressive group of clinicians and scientists, as well as their deep commitment to improving health, was inspiring,” says Robert J. Alpern, MD, dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine.

In addition to discussing their contributions to their respective fields, speakers addressed the struggles that women in medicine have faced: how choosing medicine was seen as a rejection of social and family life, the paucity of women role models in leadership positions, the exclusion of women from committees and conversations, and the challenges of working in systems and practices defined by men.

“We wanted this symposium to highlight all the expertise, talent, and resourcefulness of Yale faculty and alumnae, but we also wanted each speaker to share her own special story—something that does not routinely occur at most symposia,” says Margaret J. Bia, MD, professor of medicine (nephrology), who led the planning committee together with Elizabeth A. Jonas, MD, professor of medicine (endocrinology).

In her science session keynote address, Juanita L. Merchant, MD ’81, PhD ’84, H. Marvin Pollard Professor of Gastrointestinal Sciences; professor of internal medicine, and professor of molecular & integrative physiology at the University of Michigan Medical School, noted that many women begin careers in academic medicine, but few reach the upper echelons of the tenure-track hierarchy. For women of color, the situation is bleaker; African American women represent only 2 percent of medical school faculty in the United States. Merchant, like many of the symposium’s speakers, credits her success to multiple mentors who supported her along the way.

Naomi Rogers, PhD, professor in the history of medicine and of history, noted that Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S., was admitted in 1847 to New York’s Geneva Medical College as a joke. The first three women Yale School of Medicine admitted a century ago—when studying medicine was still considered “unladylike”—included Louise Farnam, already a PhD in physiological chemistry, who would graduate with honors, win the Campbell Gold Prize for the highest rank in examinations, and be her class’s commencement speaker.

While opportunities are not equal yet, women who have been witness to the last several decades say they see progress. “I never believed I would see women in leadership positions in science and academics and medicine,” says Joan A. Steitz, PhD, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, who earned her PhD from Harvard University in 1967. “That has all changed.” In the session on current issues facing women, Marie E. Robert, MD, professor of pathology and former SWIM chair, noted that while there will always be work to do, many of the positive steps taken by the medical school in recent years, such as ensuring that women comprise 30 percent of governance committees and 50 percent of senior search committees at YSM, addressing gender-based salary inequities, and the recruitment of a deputy dean for diversity and inclusion, have been in partnership with SWIM.

The symposium venue included a series of banners highlighting women in all areas of medicine and science during the past century. Bia and Jonas also have worked to increase faculty engagement through activities such as a recent Internal Medicine Grand Rounds that was devoted to the history of women in the department. Heartened by the enthusiastic response to the 100 Years of Women at YSM celebration, they look forward now to seeing the momentum continue.

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