The granddaughter of a legend finds her own way as a physician

Matthew Lewis, The Washington Post

Sally Winternitz, M.D., HS ’86, grew up in northern New Jersey consumed by things that are typically only passing fancies for little girls—riding horses, playing in the woods, and collecting shells. At 16, her passions took a turn when she decided that she wanted to attend medical school. “I didn’t think of it as being part of a family tradition,” she said. Whatever the spark, Winternitz’s decision continues a rich heritage of medicine initiated by her ancestors.

Winternitz’s grandfather, Milton Charles Winternitz, M.D., a second-generation physician, reigned as dean of the School of Medicine from 1920 to 1935, during which time he boosted the school to elite status and established the Yale system of medical education. Her grandmother, Helen Watson Winternitz, M.D., earned her medical degree at Johns Hopkins before marrying Milton, although she declined to practice medicine in favor of raising her children.

Despite never really knowing her grandparents—Winternitz was 5 when her grandfather passed away in 1959, and her grandmother had died 29 years earlier in the prime of her life—she feels that her grandparents exerted an unconscious influence on her and her relatives, one that has guided many of them toward medicine. “Why did eight of my cousins become physicians?” Winternitz wondered. “We have a good proportion of a medical school class. That was my grandfather’s life’s work—running a medical school.”

For much of Winternitz’s life her father, Tom, talked little of her grandfather, as the two had broken ties many years before. “Great men sometimes are great men, but not great parents,” she said. Winternitz believes that her grandfather’s hot temperament led to the schism between the two. Perhaps straining their relationship was the decision made by Tom, the eldest son, not to pursue a career in medicine. Instead he followed the path of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Watson, who with Alexander Graham Bell invented and developed the telephone. Tom Winternitz worked as an electrical engineer with Bell Laboratories for 40 years.

Sally Winternitz started medical school at Rutgers in New Jersey and after two years transferred to Tufts in Boston, graduating in 1980. She pursued internal medicine as her older brother Charlie had done, which took her to a residency at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. But Winternitz soon realized that psychiatry is her true calling. She completed two years of internal medicine at Case Western, focusing heavily on neurology due to her plans to pursue psychiatry. Then the break she was waiting for appeared: she was offered a spot in the general psychiatry training program at Yale—a department founded by her grandfather more than 50 years earlier.

Since completing the Yale program in 1986, Winternitz has worked in inpatient and outpatient psychiatry settings. She feels privileged to be allowed to share in the very intimate struggles raging within her patients and to be trusted enough to lead them toward solutions. “Spiritually, there isn’t a much better place to be than being in the service of others, and that’s really important to me,” she said.

Winternitz lives in Sequim, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula, sheltered by the Olympic Mountains on one side and a view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca separating the United States and Canada on the other. She runs a small psychiatry practice in which she sees patients two days per week, and also serves as a psychiatric consultant at a local community health center. The balance of Winternitz’s time is devoted to her husband, Matthew Barton, M.D., an anesthesiologist, and her two teenage children, son Jay and daughter Babette.

Over the past few years, Winternitz has done a lot of questioning to determine the role of her grandparents in her life. She clearly recognizes the culture of medicine that they unknowingly fostered within the family. However, her revelations go deeper: “What’s interesting to me in a synchronistic way is that my life in some ways parallels my grandmother’s, except that I get to live mine and she died.” When Helen, a much beloved wife and mother, died from probable renal failure at the age of 45, she left behind five children between the ages of five and 14, and a dark void within the family. “The irony and sad part was that here was this world-famous physician who had a wife he couldn’t heal,” says Winternitz. “Lucky me, I’m married to a physician, I get to be a physician myself, and I get to raise my kids.”

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  • Psychiatry
  • Yale School of Medicine (YSM)