A Society for Women Faculty: A Tribute to Virginia Kneeland Frantz

April 18, 2014
Virginia Kneeland Frantz

People who met Virginia Kneeland Frantz—physician, surgical pathology pioneer, teacher,  loyal P&S alumnus, student admissions interviewer—were not likely to forget the woman known as “VKF.” Now, a new organization at P&S will permanently associate Dr. Frantz’s name with the school that was her professional home for more than 40 years.

The Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society for Women Faculty has been formed to serve, support, and celebrate the careers of women in science and medicine at P&S. Faculty of all genders and ranks, as well as students and trainees, will be eligible for membership in the society.

Debora Spar
Debora Spar

The society will present the inaugural Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society for Women Faculty Lecture on April 30 at 4 p.m. in the P&S Alumni Auditorium. The lecture will be delivered by Debora L. Spar, PhD, president of Barnard College. This is especially fitting, as Barnard College played an important role in the admission of women to P&S in 1917. That was the year Gulli Lindh set her eyes on medical school as she prepared to graduate from Barnard. Ms. Lindh, who had been accepted to medical school at Johns Hopkins, enlisted the help of Barnard’s dean to negotiate with the P&S dean for her admission. First denied admission because of her gender, Ms. Lindh was ultimately admitted, along with several other women; Ms. Lindh and four other women graduated with MD degrees in 1921.

At the April 30 event, women P&S students will perform music on the Virginia Apgar String Quartet instruments in a nod to another preeminent woman in P&S history, Virginia Apgar. Dr. Apgar, the first woman named as full professor at P&S, is known globally for developing the Apgar Score to quickly assess the health of newborns. The medical school’s teaching academy, the Virginia Apgar Academy of Medical Educators, honors her dedication to teaching. Dr. Apgar was also an accomplished violinist who became interested in making stringed instruments. A famous story about her tells how she removed a maple phone booth seat (replacing it with one made from plywood) to make a viola. The Virginia Apgar String Quartet uses instruments Dr. Apgar made under the tutelage of one of the rare women luthiers (violin makers) of the 20th century, Carleen Hutchins.

Dr. Frantz, a 1922 graduate of P&S, was the first woman to pursue an internship in surgery at what is now NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the first woman to become president of the American Thyroid Association. Internationally recognized in surgical pathology, she remained at Columbia despite an offer to become president of Bryn Mawr College, her undergraduate alma mater.

She made several scientific and clinical contributions during her career. With an interest in the thyroid, she founded a multidisciplinary thyroid clinic at Columbia. She also made a series of discoveries related to the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid, breast, and pancreatic tumors, and she published an account of pancreatic tumors for the Armed Forces Atlas of Tumor Pathology that became the standard text on the subject. She was also one of the first to prove the usefulness of radioactive iodine in the diagnosis and treatment of metastatic thyroid cancer. Dr. Frantz and famed surgeon Allen O. Whipple were the first to describe the insulin secretion of pancreatic tumors. During World War II, she studied the control of bleeding during surgery with Dr. Raffaele Lattes, leading to the discovery of oxidized cellulose as an aid to wound healing that could be absorbed by the body. For this work, she received the Army-Navy Certificate of Appreciation for Civilian Service.

Dr. Frantz died of colon cancer just a few years after retiring from P&S in 1962.

The Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society will:

  • serve women at P&S by offering education and professional development
  • support women through networking, mentorship, advocacy for equity, sponsorship, work/life resources, and networking
  • celebrate women’s career achievements and advancement while also honoring individuals who mentor and support them

The society's strategic goals include offering programs, education, and services to help women faculty advance in their careers. The society will work to ensure equitable salary, promotions, and leadership opportunities for women faculty. Specific goals include promoting equitable representation of women in leadership roles and on important committees, including search committees and honors nomination committees, and actively sponsoring women faculty for honors and awards. The group also strives to be an informational and educational resource for issues that focus on faculty careers for women.

“The society will create a platform for women at P&S to become agents of change by identifying needs and barriers to advancement of women faculty and collaboratively creating solutions,” says Anne L. Taylor, MD, vice dean for academic affairs at P&S and the John Lindenbaum Professor of Medicine at CUMC. “The Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society will empower women faculty to advance in their careers, develop personally, and be full participants in institutional growth and vitality. In turn, the institution will have the full benefit of its formidable intellectual capital.”

In group photos of the Department of Surgery during its halcyon days under Allen O. Whipple’s leadership, Dr. Frantz is the only female physician or scientist pictured, but she did not think of herself as a feminist. In 1957, she considered rejecting the New York Infirmary’s Elizabeth Blackwell Award for Distinguished Service to Medicine by a Woman, saying “I can accept recognition as a doctor but not as a female doctor.” She reconsidered after reading about Elizabeth Blackwell’s place in history as the first woman to earn an MD degree from an American medical school. Dr. Frantz was named recipient of the award on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the New York Infirmary for Women by Dr. Blackwell and two other women physicians, to care for the poor and provide internship training for women physicians, who were generally unwelcome elsewhere.

Membership in the Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society will be open to faculty and alumni of all genders, faculty ranks, departments, and specialties at P&S who are committed to the career advancement of women faculty at the school. “Though this is a society that aims to serve the needs of women faculty at P&S, we recognize and encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and mentorship and welcome faculty who share the same vision but are in other schools,” says Dr. Taylor. Membership also will be open to P&S students, residents, trainees, doctoral students, and postdoctoral fellows.

More information about membership can be requested from the Office of Academic Affairs, cl2779@cumc.columbia.edu.

More information about Dr. Frantz:

Spring 1995 P&S Journal profile by Nicholas Christy, MD

John Jones Society newsletter dedicated to Dr. Frantz

Description of Dr. Frantz from Columbia 250 archives

Entry in National Library of Medicine’s online exhibit, "Changing the Face of Medicine": www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_120.html