The partnership between Mary Lake Polan, M.D. ’75, Ph.D. ’70, M.P.H., and Frank Bennack is unique, more than simply a marriage. Both have a strong commitment to giving back, and they share a vision of philanthropy as a route to improving life for others.
With an interest in women’s health, this past winter they created the Mary Lake Polan, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H. Professorship with a $3 million gift. There will be a nationwide search to fill the chair, which is the medical school’s first endowed professorship specifically dedicated to the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences.
Polan has had a distinguished career, first at Yale and then at Stanford University School of Medicine, where she was chair of obstetrics and gynecology for 15 years. She credits Yale for allowing her to take an untraditional approach to learning. “It was a golden time to be educated at Yale,” she says. “They let you follow your interests and just wanted you to be successful.”
After earning her Ph.D. in molecular biochemistry and biophysics, Polan continued at Yale as a postdoctoral fellow under Joseph G. Gall, Ph.D., who famously mentored an unusually large number of women scientists (then referred to as Gall’s Gals). “After collaborating with other women scientists in Kline Biology Tower, I decided to go back to medical school,” Polan recalls. “I liked the clinical side of science, which is medicine—talking to people, caring for them.”
She became the first woman to complete a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Yale. Following fellowships in gynecologic oncology and reproductive endocrinology, she joined the faculty, along the way pursuing a burgeoning interest in medicine in the developing world. After her service as department chair at Stanford, which ran from 1990 to 2005, Polan returned to the east coast, and is again on the Yale School of Medicine faculty as clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology & reproductive sciences.
Bennack’s career has been equally stellar. Now executive vice chair of the Hearst Corporation, he served two stints as Hearst’s CEO. On the philanthropic side, he is chair of the Board of Trustees of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, chair of the Paley Center for Media, and chair emeritus of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
The couple came together through a mix of business and serendipity. “For many years we served on the board of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals,” says Bennack. “Mary Lake was divorced and I was widowed. Fate played a hand and here we are.” They married in 2005 and now engage in philanthropy together. One joint venture helps women in Eritrea who are in dire need of corrective gynecological surgery following childbirth. After Polan established a program to provide medical care, the couple raised funds to construct a residence to house the women before and after their surgery.
The professorship that Polan and Bennack have now endowed is inspired by the urgency they feel about combating ovarian cancer, one of the most difficult cancers to treat. “As a gynecologic oncology fellow I trained with Peter E. Schwartz, M.D. [John Slade Ely Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences]. He is an outstanding physician,” says Polan. “This was the most important clinical experience of my life, so cancer is where we hope to make a difference.”
“Survival rates for ovarian cancer are dismal and treatments have not progressed significantly in decades,” says Hugh S. Taylor, M.D., chair and Anita O’Keeffe Young Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences; and professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. “Our primary focus is on finding innovative ways to treat it. This gift enables us to recruit an outstanding physician-scientist who will help us take our clinical care and research to the next level. We want to find that breakthrough that will beat this disease.”