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.
In 1919, when Edith Quimby, ScD, took a temporary job in what is now Columbia’s Center for Radiological Research, X-rays and radium had been known for about 20 years, but their medical applications were still primitive.
Quimby’s work—she stayed at the center for more than 60 years, rising to full professor—was instrumental in the development of radiation as a medical treatment. Her work focused on the medical effects of radiation, how to determine the precise dosage needed that would cause the fewest side effects, and the application of radioactive isotopes in the treatment of thyroid disease and the diagnosis of brain tumors
She is best remembered for the “Quimby Rules,” a system used by radiation oncologists to guide placement of radium needles in tfor cancer treatment. She also co-authored “Physical Foundations of Radiology”, the first physics textbook for radiologists.
“Quimby was an outstanding member of the group of four pioneers who can be described accurately with the title of their classic book," wrote former center director, Harald Rossi, of Quimby. "They built the "physical foundations of radiology."
Quimby received numerous honors and awards, among them the 1940 Janeway Medal from the American Radium Society, and in 1954, she became president of the society. The Edith H. Quimby Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Association of Physics in Medicine is named in her honor.
Barbara W. Low
Columbia’s Barbara W. Low, DPhil, was part of an early wave of women who gained prominence in the field of X-ray crystallography, a technique that used X-rays to reveal the 3-dimensional shapes of molecules.
She was the last of a small cadre of women who rose to eminent positions in the male-dominated world of mid-20th century biomedical science, establishing a culture of inclusion that continues to shape other scientists' careers.
Low was one of the star students of 1964 Nobelist Dorothy Hodgkin, and together they solved the structure of penicillin during World War II. That work "was a tour de force,” according to Columbia structural biologist Wayne Hendrickson, PhD, University Professor. “It was a huge undertaking at that time, and Low and Hodgkin pushed the technology of the day to new limits.”
After Oxford, Low moved to the United States, eventually settling at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1956 as an associate professor. There, she cemented her reputation as both an innovative researcher and a demanding but dedicated mentor.
In her Columbia lab, Low and her team made a series of major advances, ranging from early work on the structure of insulin to pioneering studies on neurotoxins. Read more in the CUIMC Newsroom and the New York Times.
Zena Stein, MBBS, was a seminal figure in the establishment of the discipline of epidemiology with her late husband and longtime collaborator, Mervyn Susser, chair of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School from 1966 to 1978. Their creative and rigorous research brought new insights to understanding mental health, reproductive health, and the social determinants of health.
Stein and Susser may be best known for launching a series of rigorous studies of the Dutch Famine, a nine-month period of malnutrition during the Second World War. These studies helped lead to the discovery that babies conceived during the famine’s peak had elevated rates of congenital nervous system anomalies, including neural tube defects. Based on these findings, clinical trials investigated the role of folate in pregnancy, and eventually to a federal recommendation that all women who could become pregnant consume folic acid daily.
As the HIV pandemic exploded in the 1980s, Stein shifted focus and became a powerful voice drawing attention to the needs of women. Increasing numbers of women were becoming infected but remained invisible. In 1987, she co-founded the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at Columbia and the New York State Psychiatric Institute that explicitly included a focus on women. Her research and advocacy helped lead to the development of the female condom and microbicides to prevent the transmission of the virus.
Gertrude Curtis and Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany
New York state's first Black women dentists were both graduates of Columbia's dental school or its precursors. In 1909, Gertrude Elizabeth Curtis graduated from New York College of Dental and Oral Surgery and then ran a weekly dental clinic at Bellevue Hospital and a dental practice in Harlem. (New York College of Dental and Oral Surgery joined Columbia University in 1916).
Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, DDS’23, was Columbia dental school’s first female Black graduate and became the second female Black 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.
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.
The modern history of cystic fibrosis begins in 1935, when Dorothy Hansine Andersen’s curiosity led to the discovery of the disease.
For her time and place in history, Dorothy Hansine Andersen was as rare as she was brilliant. When only some 5% of practicing physicians in the United States were women, she held both an MD degree (from Johns Hopkins University) and a Doctor of Medical Science degree (from Columbia).
After she was rejected for a surgical residency elsewhere because she was a woman, Andersen earned a position as a pathologist at Babies Hospital (now NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital). It was there she encountered her first case of the disease now known as cystic fibrosis.
While performing an autopsy of a 3-year-old girl diagnosed with celiac disease, Andersen found the patient’s lungs in grisly condition and the pancreas riddled with fibrous cysts. After noticing similar reports from other pathologists, she began her own research, writing the authors of journal articles and requesting pancreatic tissue samples. In 1938, Andersen published a paper describing nearly 50 patients with the disease’s hallmark symptoms.
Andersen's landmark paper began a broader dialogue around the new disease. Concerned parents traveled from across the country to seek her counsel, and her work unexpectedly shifted from pathologist to pediatrician as families poured in to see her at Columbia. In the years that followed, she would become the founding physician, leading expert, and de facto matriarch of cystic fibrosis. Read more in Columbia Medicine magazine.
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.
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
Anna Maxwell has often been called the "American Florence Nightingale" and 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. Over the next several years, Maxwell established a nursing school in Montreal, and served as superintendent of the Massachusetts General Hospital Training School for Nurses. Presbyterian Hospital recruited her establish the Presbyterian Hospital Training School for Nurses [now Columbia University School of Nursing), a rigorous and innovative program, and served as its superintendent from its opening in 1892 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 earned the comparison to Florence Nightingale during the Spanish-American War. Maxwell urged the Surgeon General to hire trained nurses for the military and she was appointed to organize nurses at a camp hospital in Georgia. Out of 1,000 patients admitted during her time at the camp, only 67 died under her watch, and the value of hiring trained nurses for the military was indisputedly demonstrated. The colonel of the camp remarked, "when you were coming, we did not know what we were to do with you; now we wonder what we could have done without you." Maxwell's successes led to the creation of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and she was later instrumental in securing officer rank for military nurses. 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.
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, 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 the first woman to enter the two-year surgical residency at what is now NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Frantz finished the program and was appointed as an outpatient surgeon at the hospital. At the time, young surgeons in these positions could be selected after a few years to join the regular hospital staff. But Frantz’s senior colleagues believed patients would not accept a woman surgeon, and on their advice, she instead pursued a career in surgical pathology.
As one of the early pioneers of surgical pathology, Frantz made a series of important cancer discoveries. She was among the first to demonstrate that radioactive iodine was effective in diagnosing and treating metastatic thyroid cancer. And with surgeon Allen O. Whipple, she was the first to describe the insulin-secretion of pancreatic tumors. Her text on tumors of the pancreas—the Armed Forces Atlas of Tumor Pathology—later became the standard on the subject.
Her medical contributions also extended outside the field of cancer. During World War II, Frantz studied the control of bleeding during surgery and helped discover how oxidized cellulose could aid wound healing. The product was developed under her direction (and later sold by Ethicon under the name Surgicel) and used on the battlefield. For her military contributions, Frantz received the the Army-Navy Certificate of Appreciation for Civilian Service.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 T. Bassett, MD’79, who was confirmed as New York State health commissioner in Jan. 2022, brings a racial equity approach to public health. As New York City health commissioner from 2014 to 2018, she worked to address the racism at the root of the city’s health disparities between white residents and communities of color.
“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 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.”
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!”
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.
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.
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.”