Women’s History Month: Women at CUIMC Who Made a Difference

Many women have made deep and lasting imprints on Columbia University Irving Medical Center over the years. Meet some of the remarkable clinicians, educators, scientists, and alumni from throughout history.

Virginia Apgar

VP&S faculty member, alum, and trailblazer Virginia Apgar, MD, is best known for developing the Apgar Score, a simple, systematic method of assessing newborn health that is still in use around the world.

When she entered VP&S as a student in 1929, Apgar was one of only four women. In 1938, she returned to Columbia as the first director of the anesthesia division. Eleven years later, Apgar became the first woman appointed to a full professorship at VP&S, at which point she shifted her focus to obstetric anesthesia. Her observations led to her creation of the Apgar Score in 1952 and prompted doctors to be attentive to infants, not just mothers, in the delivery room.

Apgar’s impact has been recognized in ways big and small. To name a few: Her likeness appeared on a U.S. postage stamp as part of the Great Americans series (1994), she was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1995), and she was recently featured in a Google doodle (2018). At VP&S, the Virginia Apgar Academy of Medical Educators is named in honor of her dedication to medical education.

Virginia Kneeland Frantz

Virginia Kneeland Frantz, MD, was a groundbreaking investigator in surgical pathology and longtime faculty member at VP&S.

Frantz graduated from VP&S in 1922 and—at a time when surgery was an unheard-of career for women—was appointed a surgical intern at what is now NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. She taught surgery at VP&S for 38 years and wrote the textbook “Introduction to Surgery,” now in its fourth edition.

Frantz was, in collaboration with famed surgeon Allen O. Whipple, the first to describe insulin secretion in pancreatic tumors. She also made discoveries related to diagnosis and treatment of several tumor types, perhaps most notably that radioactive iodine is useful for diagnosing and treating metastatic thyroid cancer.

In 1961, Frantz became the first woman president of the American Thyroid Association. At VP&S, the Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society for Women Faculty is named in her honor.

Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany

Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, DDS’23, was Columbia dental school’s first female African-American graduate and became the second female African-American dentist in New York state. She spent her career in Harlem, where she looked after the oral health of such luminaries as nightclub owner Ed Small, surgeon and civil rights leader Louis T. Wright, MD, and author James Weldon Johnson. 

The Real Delany Sisters

Delany and her sister, Sarah, became celebrities when their memoir, “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years," was published in 1993. A Broadway show and TV movie followed. Delany (on the right in the video above) died in 1995 at age 104.

Balbina Johnson

Balbina Johnson, director of the Surgical Bacteriological Laboratory at what was Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, had a key role in the development of the antibiotic bacitracin.

In 1943, while examining a wound culture from a girl suffering from a leg fracture, Johnson noticed that the pathogen Staphylococcus aureus, which had been in the culture the previous day, had disappeared overnight. Johnson and surgery professor Frank L. Meleney, VP&S’1916, determined that the pathogen had been killed by an agent produced by another bacterium that had infected the wound, Bacillus subtilis, which they used to develop bacitracin.

The development of bacitracin meant that certain infections that otherwise would have required surgery could instead be treated topically. It remains a common ingredient in over-the-counter antibiotic ointments for minor skin wounds.

Doris Wethers

Pediatrician Doris Wethers, MD, a VP&S faculty member at St. Luke’s Hospital from 1974 to 1999, was a pioneer in the research of sickle cell disease and patient care.

During her time at St. Luke’s, which was affiliated with VP&S from 1947 until 2013, Wethers was part of a group of physicians whose landmark study showed that an antibiotic reduced mortality in children with sickle cell. That led to a push to screen all newborns for sickle cell, which had already started in New York in 1975.

In 1987, Wethers chaired an NIH panel that recommended newborn screening for all babies. Only 10 states at the time offered such screening; universal screening became available in all states in 2006.

Wethers was the third African-American woman to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine and, in 1958, became St. Luke’s first black attending physician.

Hattie Alexander

VP&S pediatrician and microbiology expert Hattie Alexander, MD, developed the first effective treatment for a lethal form of meningitis.

A Baltimore native, Alexander completed an undergraduate degree and worked for several years at the national and state Public Health Service as a bacteriologist, which allowed her to save money for medical school and gather the research experience that gained her admittance to Johns Hopkins University. After receiving her MD degree in 1930, she interned at Columbia-Presbyterian’s Babies Hospital (now Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital) and remained affiliated with Columbia for the rest of her career.

In 1939, a year after being appointed assistant professor of pediatrics, Alexander developed an anti-influenzal serum to treat meningitis caused by Hemophilus influenza. The serum lowered child and infant mortality due to this bacterium by 80 percent, saving thousands of lives until other drugs took its place.

Alexander also led the microbiological laboratory at Babies Hospital and became an authority on bacterial infections. In collaboration with her research associate Grace Leidy, Alexander shed light on how genetic mutation could make bacteria antibiotic-resistant.

Throughout her career, Alexander remained engaged in active clinic service, teaching, and public health efforts. In 1964, she became the first woman elected president of the American Pediatrics Society.

Agnes Griffin

Agnes Griffin, MD'23, first black woman to graduate from Columbia University's medical school

During the 1920s fewer than 100 black women were doctors in the United States. In 1977, the New York Times interviewed a handful of those pioneering black women. Among them, Agnes Griffin, MD’23, the first black woman to earn an MD from VP&S, who told the Times she never felt particularly “determined or strong‐willed” but was “just doing what comes naturally.”

Gulli Lindh 

Women were first admitted to VP&S beginning in 1917, thanks largely to a Barnard senior who dreamed of becoming a doctor: Gulli Lindh. 

In her campaign to become the first woman admitted to VP&S, Lindh paid many visits in early 1917 to Dean Samuel Lambert, who refused on grounds such as the lack of women’s restrooms, a place for women to hang their hats, and appropriate plumbing. Virginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College, advocated on Lindh’s behalf. Eventually, Lambert agreed to consider Lindh’s application on the condition that she raise $50,000 before July 1 to pay for infrastructure changes needed to accommodate women students.

Despite their efforts, Lindh and Gildersleeve managed to collect only a few thousand dollars in that time. They met again with Lambert and asked that he accept Lindh to VP&S and trust them to raise the rest of the money. Several more meetings later, Lambert agreed and admitted Lindh along with 10 other women to VP&S that year. Soon after, an anonymous donor in Texas committed to pay the $50,000.

Lindh graduated first in her class in 1921. She became one of Presbyterian Hospital’s first female interns and worked for a short time as an instructor at VP&S before joining her husband in Massachusetts, where she conducted research at Thorndike Memorial Laboratory at Boston City Hospital.

Anna Maxwell

A pioneer of nursing education and proponent of professional nursing, Anna Maxwell was the founding director of the Columbia University School of Nursing.

Maxwell began her own nursing education in 1878 at the Boston City Hospital Training School of Nurses. After graduating, she directed several nurse training programs and in 1892 established the Presbyterian Hospital Training School for Nurses, a rigorous and innovative program, and served as its superintendent until 1921. Maxwell expanded the program over time, forging an affiliation with Teachers College that led to a bachelor of science degree along with a nursing diploma.

Maxwell’s contributions were pivotal in raising the profile of professional nursing in the United States. She created several early associations for nurses and helped pass the 1903 Nurse Practice Act, which promoted licensure to protect the title of registered nurse and improve the practice of nursing. Maxwell trained and organized nurses at Fort Thomas during the Spanish-American war, improving the care of soldiers and demonstrating the value of hiring trained nurses for the military. She was instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and in 1901 was given an officer rank. During World War I, Maxwell visited hospitals at the front in Europe and advised on the training of nurses in the military. 

When she died in 1929, Maxwell was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Margaret Morgan Lawrence

Margaret Morgan Lawrence, MD'40
Margaret Morgan Lawrence, MD'40.

Margaret Morgan Lawrence, MD’40, grew up in Mississippi and was inspired to become a doctor by the death of her only sibling, who died before Lawrence was born. She witnessed her parents' grief and hoped that as a doctor she could prevent the deaths of other children.

After graduating from medical school, she applied to Columbia's pediatrics residency but was denied a place because of her gender. Instead, she trained at Harlem Hospital, where "her eyes opened to the connections between physical illness and community health,” wrote her daughter in Lawrence's biography, "Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer."

She later trained in psychiatry at New York State Psychiatric Institute and psychoanalysis at the Columbia Psychoanalytic Center and became the first African-American female psychoanalyst in the United States and the first black female physician certified by the American Board of Pediatrics. She developed some of the first child therapy programs in schools, day care centers, and hospitals, including the school programs in Rockland County, New York, and the Division of Child Psychiatry at Harlem Hospital. 

Dorothy Andersen

Dorothy Andersen, MD, PhD, a VP&S professor of pathology and clinician, was the first to identify cystic fibrosis and helped create tests to diagnose the disease. 

Andersen joined the Columbia faculty in 1929 after earning her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and completing a surgical internship at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. Over the course of her career at VP&S she conducted research in pathology, cardiology, and endocrinology; earned a PhD; and authored or co-authored close to 100 papers.

Some of Andersen’s early studies at Babies Hospital focused on congenital heart anomalies and had an important role in the development of open-heart surgery there. At the same time, she started investigating cystic fibrosis of the pancreas and, in 1938, published a groundbreaking paper on cystic fibrosis that distinguished CF from celiac disease. Her research lay the groundwork for a simple “sweat test” for diagnosing cystic fibrosis developed by Paul di Sant’Agnese, VP&S’48, which is still used today.

Andersen became chief of pathology at Babies Hospital in 1952 and was appointed a full professor in 1958. 

Elizabeth Bishop Davis


Elizabeth Bishop Davis, MD'49
Elizabeth Bishop Davis, MD'49. Photo: Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Even in medical school, Elizabeth Bishop Davis, MD’49, was already committed to providing psychiatric services for the people of Harlem. Her father, the Rev. Shelton Hale Bishop, helped establish the LaFargue Clinic, Harlem’s first mental health clinic, with novelist Richard Wright and psychotherapist Fredric Wertham, MD; Davis spent her first year in school working as a clerk at the clinic. At the time, most New York City hospitals and clinics did not treat black people in need of psychiatric care.

After graduation, Davis opened a private practice in psychiatry. She joined the Columbia faculty in 1957 and founded Harlem Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry in 1962. 

By the time she retired in 1978 from running the department, it had grown to include an adult inpatient unit, a geriatric clinic, children’s services, and a psychiatric residency training program, among other features. “Under her initiative and guidance, this service has become one of the outstanding service, teaching, and training centers in the city,” wrote one colleague when Davis was considered for tenure.  

Zena Stein

Mailman School professor emeritus Zena Stein, MBBCh, is celebrated as a public health leader and lauded for her work addressing HIV infection in women.

Hailing from Durban, South Africa, Stein completed her medical degree at Witwatersrand Medical School. As her career progressed, she emerged as a thought leader in social medicine and epidemiology. In 1966, she and her husband joined the epidemiology department at Columbia and together advanced the field of perinatal epidemiology. Around the same time, Stein became director of the Epidemiology Research Unit of the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI), a position she held for three decades.

Stein’s work in perinatal epidemiology led to her pioneering studies on HIV infection. In 1987, she became a founding co-director of the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at Columbia and NYSPI. One of her earlier research interests, mental retardation, prompted a set of studies analyzing the health effects of maternal undernutrition due to the 1944-45 Dutch famine.  

In 2013, Columbia University awarded Stein an honorary doctor of science degree to recognize her scholarly oeuvre, efforts to improve patient care, and social justice advocacy (including her early opposition to South African apartheid).

Patricia Bath

Ophthalmologist and laser scientist Patricia Bath, MD, was famous for developing a revolutionary technique for removing cataracts that is used around the world to restore sight.

Patricia Bath On Being The First Person To Invent & Demonstrate Laserphaco Cataract Surgery | TIME

Her place in Columbia history dates back to her years as an intern and fellow at Harlem Hospital and CUIMC, when she found that blindness was twice as common in African-Americans than in whites. She concluded that the difference arose from disparities in care, and she proposed a new discipline, known as community ophthalmology, to offer care to underserved populations. This outreach detected previously undiagnosed problems in thousands of people whose sight was subsequently saved.

Bath also convinced Columbia ophthalmologists to provide free eye surgery for blind patients at Harlem Hospital's Eye Clinic, which did not perform eye surgery at the time. Because of her efforts, the hospital’s first major eye operation was performed in 1970. Bath recently received the John Stearns Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Clinical Practice from the New York Academy of Medicine.

Read more: The Right to Sight

Margarita Silva-Hutner

The field of medical mycology, which is concerned with the health effects of fungi, was relatively young when Margarita Silva-Hutner began her research career in 1936. After earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico, Silva-Hutner was hired as a technologist in the mycology lab at the Columbia University School of Tropical Medicine in San Juan. She spent more than a decade there researching fungal infections—primarily chromoblastomycosis, a condition prevalent in Puerto Rico—with her mentor Arturo L. Carrión, MD. 

Margarita Silva-Hutner, seated, with Rhoda Benham

In 1950, Silva-Hutner joined the Medical Mycology Laboratory of the VP&S Department of Dermatology Laboratory under the direction of eminent mycologist Rhoda Benham, PhD, while pursuing a PhD at Harvard on the weekends. In 1952 she was appointed to the VP&S faculty, and four years later succeeded Benham as director of the mycology laboratory.

Silva-Hutner instructed VP&S students on mycology for many years, even long after her retirement in 1981. She was a prolific researcher, publishing more than 50 articles on pathogenic fungi during her career, and her studies contributed to the discovery of the antifungal medication nystatin.

Irené Ferrer

The cardiac catheter—for which VP&S faculty members André Cournand and Dickinson Richards received the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine—and electrocardiogram are vital tools for diagnosing and treating heart conditions. A key figure behind the improvement of these devices was M. Irené Ferrer, MD.

Ferrer received her medical degree from VP&S in 1941 and continued her training at Columbia’s Bellevue Hospital, where she became the hospital’s first female chief resident in medicine. At Bellevue, Ferrer collaborated with Cournand and Richards to evaluate and refine the cardiac catheter, a small hollow tube that is inserted into the heart by way of a blood vessel. The catheter allows doctors to measure blood flow and diagnose cardiovascular problems.

After her residency, Ferrer practiced for two years at New York University and returned to VP&S in 1956 as an assistant in medicine. She remained with Columbia for many years, receiving several promotions up through full professorship in 1967. She became a professor emeritus in 1981. 

Over the course of her career, Ferrer held appointments and directed electrocardiographics units at multiple hospitals. In her work with electrocardiograms, she helped create an algorithm that allowed EKG readings to be more easily understood. Ferrer was honored by Columbia for her many contributions with the VP&S Distinguished Service Award (1989) and the Alumni Association Gold Medal (1993).

Mary Bassett

As New York City health commissioner from 2014 to 2018, Mary T. Bassett, MD’79, worked to address the racism at the root of the city’s health disparities between white residents and communities of color.

Why your doctor should care about social justice | Mary Bassett

“There is great injustice in the daily violence experienced by young black men,” she wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine about the Black Lives Matter movement. “But the tragedy of lives cut short is not accounted for entirely, or even mostly, by violence. In New York City, the rate of premature death is 50 percent higher among black men than among white men...common medical conditions take lives slowly and quietly—but just as unfairly.” 

The daughter of peace and civil rights activists, Bassett grew up in Washington Heights and was drawn to medicine after a summer job as a census taker. “I was given the privilege of going into people’s homes, seeing what they put on their table for dinner, sitting down, and taking information about their lives,” she told Columbia Medicine magazine in 2015. “I wanted to do more than just register statistics.” Bassett also was an associate professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health from 1995 to 2018.

Abbie Knowlton

Abbie Ingalls Knowlton, MD, is remembered for her humanism as a care provider and educator and her expertise in endocrinology.

Knowlton became interested in medicine from a young age when her sister, who had osteomyelitis, recovered through a physician’s care. As a teenager, she shadowed the family physician on his rounds and helped with tasks such as taking urine samples and scanning X-rays. 

She was one of only six women admitted to VP&S in 1938 and was an exemplary student. After graduating, Knowlton trained at Presbyterian Hospital and was the first woman to be named chief resident of medicine there. In 1947 she joined the VP&S faculty as an instructor, and over time she rose through the ranks to become a clinical professor of medicine.

At VP&S, adrenal disorders caught Knowlton’s interest, and through her clinical care and research she emerged as a leading expert in Addison’s disease. Her work furthered understanding of adrenal gland physiology and treatment of patients with endocrine disorders.

Among her colleagues, Knowlton was known as a model physician, attentive and compassionate. In a 1996 interview—one year before her death—she said of patient care: “I can't think of any way I would rather have spent this last half century.”

Yvonne Thornton

As Yvonne Thornton, MD’73, tells the story in her memoir, “The Ditchdigger’s Daughters,” her father, who sometimes held down three jobs to make ends meet, decided that his six daughters would become doctors to achieve a better life. Her father’s dream became her own at age 8, when she witnessed a woman giving birth in an elevator and exclaimed, “I want to be around when one person becomes two people!”

Yvonne Thornton, MD'73, at her medical school graduation with parents Itasker and Donald Thornton
Yvonne Thornton, MD'73, at her medical school graduation with parents Itasker and Donald Thornton. Photo courtesy of Yvonne Thornton.

Thornton excelled at VP&S at a time when women obstetricians were rare and black female obstetricians were even rarer. She later became the first African-American woman in the United States to be board-certified in high-risk obstetrics, and as one of the first in the United States to use chorionic villus sampling for prenatal genetic testing, she was among a group of practitioners whose work persuaded the FDA to approve the procedure.

Read more: National Medical Fellowships Alumna Spotlight

Ethel Spector Person

VP&S psychiatrist Ethel Spector Person, MD, sought to understand sexual fantasy and was a pioneer in the research of transsexuality and cross-dressing.

Person earned her medical degree from New York University in 1960. Following an internship and psychiatric residency, she completed five years of psychoanalytic training at Columbia’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Person had a private practice but also practiced at Presbyterian Hospital and held positions at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and the Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, where she became the center’s first female director in 1981.

Ethel Spector Person
Archives & Special Collections, Health Sciences Library, Columbia University

Person’s analyses of sex, love, and fantasy reached a wide audience through magazine articles and the four books she published. In “By Force of Fantasy: How We Make Our Lives,” she posited that fantasy shapes people’s lives and is important to well-being.

Person was unconventional in her approach to researching sexuality and gender identity: Rather than staying in a clinical setting, she visited sex shops and drag balls and examined an assortment of materials, including pornography. Her work with Lionel Ovesey distinguished gender identity, gender-role identity, and sexual preference and attempted to understand how they develop. Her findings pushed against the contemporary views on sexuality and identity and provided a pivot point from which the current understanding of these topics has evolved. 

“If her first conclusions now seem dated,” wrote Stephen Burt for The New York Times Magazine, “they remind us that life stories matter, and they are now part of a larger story about the categories of male and female, masculine and feminine, fantasy and reality, whose compelling, mysterious embodiments Person helped us understand.”