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A life of engagement

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Summer


When Helen P. Langner, M.D. '22, died last December at age 105, one of her many friends observed that the least remarkable thing about her was her age. “I think she was bewildered by the accolades, the things that people said about her,” said Helen Trainor, a nurse-psychotherapist who trained and worked with Dr. Langner from 1983 until her death. “Her answer was, 'If you live long enough you get recognition, whether you deserve it or not.' ”

Dr. Langner's life spanned nearly all of the 20th century and was filled with accomplishments that had nothing to do with her years but everything to do with her times. She was the fourth woman to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine. She marched in one of the first women's suffrage rallies. She was an early practitioner in the emerging field of child psychiatry. And at Yale medical school reunions and other ceremonial events, she was honored and celebrated as the school's oldest alumna.

She died just a few months before she was to receive her second medical diploma from Yale as an honorary member of the Class of 1998, the first Yale medical class to enter with more women than men. Dr. Langner was inducted with the class four years ago at the White Coat Ceremony welcoming students to the profession of medicine.

Who was this frail centenarian who radiated not only wisdom, but common sense and calm? Friends and colleagues remember a slight, white-haired woman who believed having good reasons for living was the key to longevity, and who kept her mind active even as her body came to rely on canes, walkers and finally a wheelchair. She continued working until she was well into her 90s. Invitations to meetings and reunions at Yale often came with offers, which she rejected, of a car and driver to collect her and take her home. She preferred walking from her house on Shipyard Lane in nearby Milford, Conn., to the center of town, where she could take the bus to New Haven. She routinely walked the three-quarters of a mile from her white two-story house overlooking the harbor to Milford Hospital and the city health department, where she began a second career at the age of 78. “To see her there was to feel all was right with the world … as long as she was in it,” said Alan Jepson, Milford's city clerk.

Early obstacles

Dr. Langner marched in an early suffrage rally, but no one recalls her expressing anger or bitterness at the obstacles she faced as a woman in medicine. She believed hard work would see her through. “The first hurdle was finding a medical school that would accept you,” said Susan J. Baserga, M.D., Ph.D. '88, who has written about the history of women in medicine (See Gallery) and who knew Dr. Langner. “The problem after that was getting a residency because there weren't too many programs that accepted women.”

Her path to a career in psychiatry began during World War I when she had an administrative job at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City. She'd gone to New York a few years earlier to attend Hunter College, which, unlike colleges in Connecticut, accepted women. After graduation in 1914 she taught high school biology, work that didn't satisfy her, before moving on to the hospital. She considered a career in nursing, but her father urged her to apply to the Yale medical school, which had begun to accept women.

For the next four years she lived at the home in Milford where she'd grown up, the first and only daughter of a baker and his wife, and big sister to five brothers. Every morning she caught an early train from Milford to New Haven, walked from Union Station to her classes, and then returned home in the afternoon to study late into the night. In the little time she had for recreation, she sailed on Long Island Sound or listened to operas like The Magic Flute and Die Fledermaus. When she came home to visit during her undergraduate days in New York, her mother, who also loved opera, would slip her an extra dollar so she could attend a performance, her brother Gustave Langner remembered.

Although she was the only woman in her medical school class, friends say she felt supported by her fellow students, particularly Edward and Maurice Wakeman, twin brothers whose father was a physician and whose sister, Ella, had entered the school the year before. Maurice died while doing research in Africa, but Dr. Langner maintained her friendship with Edward and Ella. From medical school Dr. Langner went to a residency at Wards Island, a state mental hospital in New York City.

It was made clear to Dr. Langner in her first job after her residency, setting up child guidance clinics around the country, that a man was preferred. Fine, she said. She offered to start the clinics, then step aside if a man came along. After a few months in Richmond, Va., she went to a privately funded clinic in Indianapolis, where she stayed two years until the stock market crashed and funding ran out.

She took over as director of undergraduate health services at Vassar College when her predecessor took a maternity leave. Although Dr. Langner never married, she was a strong advocate not only for women in medicine, but also for women who combined family and profession. Dr. Langner told Merle Waxman, director of the medical school's Office for Women in Medicine, that she was very excited about the increasing numbers of women entering the field. “She greatly admired women who devoted their careers to science and to medicine,” Ms. Waxman says. “She was a strong supporter of the concept of an Office for Women in Medicine here, and was an important friend of the office.”

After 10 years at Vassar, her interest in psychiatry led her to New York City, a private practice and an appointment at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. She opened her office the month Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. She also moved into the family home overlooking the harbor at Milford and commuted to New York by train. Friends wonder if child psychiatry appealed to Dr. Langner because of her role as the older sister who had a hand in raising her five brothers. Even as a centenarian, friends say, she drew children to her because she listened to them. “Kids won't go near people they sense aren't receptive,” says Ms. Trainor. “They seem to be able to pick out the people who are warm and safe and approachable. She was very approachable.”

Ms. Trainor recalls how Dr. Langner helped a 5-year-old boy, the son of friends, who had been diagnosed as hyperactive. Dr. Langner saw the boy not as a patient, but as a guest in her home. She encouraged curiosity in children, and like all children who visited her, the boy was allowed to explore the house. Dr. Langner concluded that he had too long an attention span to be hyperactive. “In her inimitable way,” Ms. Trainor says, “she did not say the diagnosis was wrong. She just suggested that this was a situation that could be remedied by setting certain limits.”

A Milford woman took her 10-year-old son to Dr. Langner for counseling about 25 years ago. “He was daydreaming, off in another world,” says the woman. The boy also had slight difficulties with hand-eye coordination. “She played games with him and learned about his abilities and weaknesses.” Dr. Langner, she says, played to the boy's strengths with advice to take up “big muscle” activities such as swimming and running. “We had to know his limitations so we didn't push him into things he shouldn't be pushed into,” the boy's mother says.

While she was gentle and flexible, she could also be quite firm. “I sat behind a screen one time at Wards Island when she was discharging a patient,” her brother said, recalling an incident that occurred more than half a century ago. “She laid it into the husband who was going to take his wife home and told him what he was going to have to do so she wouldn't have to come back to the hospital. He was very meek and mild, 'Yes, Doctor. Yes, Doctor. I will, Doctor.' I was grinning ear to ear behind the screen.”

Dr. Langner closed the chapter on her second career at Milford's hospital and health department at the age of 98. During the preceding two decades she had accepted no payment for her work, and it was only with difficulty that George Kraus, M.D., M.P.H. '51, director of Milford's health department, convinced her to let him pay her licensing fees and professional dues.

“She saw people with problems who could not afford private psychiatric care,” Dr. Kraus said, adding that she was particularly helpful with elderly patients. “She would tell them that she was a psychiatrist who came to examine them. But they regarded her as a friend and a helper. As a result we were able to elicit information that we could otherwise not get.”

Even after her second retirement, she tried to keep up with medical practices by reading medical journals and attending conferences and reunions. “I would bring a case to her and the next time I saw her she would have found an article in a journal that pertained to that particular case,” recalled Ms. Trainor, for whom Dr. Langner was a mentor. “She would have read it, given it to me to read and then we would discuss that particular article.”

In her hometown Dr. Langner became an ardent preservationist, campaigning to save historic buildings and the harbor and sound where she'd sailed in her youth. “Every time they were going to demolish an old building in Milford that had historical significance,” said Nicholas P. Spinelli, M.D. '44, “there she was. She always had a petition: 'You will not destroy this place.' ”

Dr. Langner was renowned as the oldest resident of Milford and the only survivor of her medical school class. Newspapers often carried stories about her and Cable News Network featured her in a report about centenarians. Although her longevity brought a degree of celebrity, it was her vibrant, active mind that drew people to her. “I suddenly was aware of this little old lady in the back of the room at reunions,” recalled Dr. Spinelli, the medical school's former director of alumni affairs, who remembers meeting Dr. Langner about 15 years ago. “She was 90 going on 25. You would talk to her and you thought she was a college student planning to go to medical school next year, she was so enthusiastic.”

And while she never liked to be fussed over, about 80 friends, relatives and colleagues gathered at the First United Church of Christ in Milford in early February to remember her. Youngest brother Gustave, 94, accepted the honorary degree that would have come to his sister in May. Speaking at the memorial service, Deputy Dean Robert H. Gifford, HS '67, said that her contribution to education was profound. “She became an inspiration to hundreds of medical students, particularly women.” YM