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Women Faculty Celebrate Accomplishments on Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell’s Birthday

Women faculty members at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine shared the tough lessons and great accomplishments of the past – along with the inspiring promise of the future – at an event commemorating the 196th birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.

“I think of Dr. Blackwell as a champion of academic medicine,” said Judy Schaechter, M.D., M.B.A., chair of pediatrics, who organized the panel discussion attended by faculty, administrative leadership, staff, trainees and students. At Geneva Medical College in upstate New York, “the dean presented her medical school application to the students, who thought it was a practical joke. They were aghast when she showed up.”

Blackwell went on to become valedictorian of her class and provide care for women and children for years. Lourdes Forster, M.D., associate professor of clinical pediatrics and medical director of UHealth Pediatrics, said she read a biography of Blackwell in the summer after fourth grade, and immediately decided she wanted to become a doctor.

Forster, who was the fifth child in a Cuban family, was one of only three Spanish-speakers in her med school class at Tulane. She came to realize that what was important to her as a physician was contact with patients and the opportunity to influence students, and she was one of several speakers who talked about the responsibility to help their daughters, and all girls, figure out what matters to them and how they can press on through life’s challenges.

“What is important? To have a purpose and a mission; with that in mind you can overcome barriers,” said Ofelia A. Alvarez, M.D., professor of clinical pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Sickle Cell Program. “We make a difference in families’ lives, and the rewards are many.”

Clearing the way for women in academic medicine to advance in leadership is a priority for many of the speakers. “The problem now is not recruiting people – we are 50 percent of medical school classes – but retaining them, promoting them and helping them become leaders,” said
Asha B. Pillai, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Division of Pediatric Hematology Oncology.

One of the most successful researchers at the Miller School, Gwendolyn B. Scott, M.D., professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease and Immunology, came from “very humble beginnings” in small-town Wisconsin. In her high school class of 65 students, she was one of two who went to college; years later, she was one of five or six women in her medical school class at the University of Wisconsin.

“When I went into medicine I was very idealistic,” Scott said. “I thought I would go into rural medicine. Then I ended up at the University of California San Francisco and fell in love with pediatrics. It is such a joy to teach the students and impart some of the joy of taking care of children.”

Scott is part of the UM team widely recognized for their research that led to the prevention of transmission of HIV from mother to child during pregnancy. “AIDS was the disease that really taught me what a physician is,” she said. “We had patients who were unable to share their diagnosis with others, and relied totally on their doctors.”Carolyn Abitbol, M.D., professor of pediatrics and medical director of the pediatric dialysis unit at Holtz Children’s Hospital, echoed some of Scott’s experiences and vision. Abitbol enrolled as one of five women in a class of 80 medical students at the University of Virginia – after an interview at Duke “at which a group of men asked me, ‘Why would you want to become a doctor? You want to have a family, right?’ ”

But the future was bright. “I’ve had wonderful mentors, and I love the people I work with,” Abitbol said. “We should be grateful that we have the energy, the intellect and the focus.”

Also participating on the panel were G. Patricia Cantwell, M.D., professor of clinical pediatrics and chief of the Division of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine; Holly L. Neville, M.D., professor in the Department of Surgery, where she serves as a pediatric surgeon and clerkship director; and Karen C. Young, M.D., associate professor of clinical pediatrics and associate director of the neonatology fellowship program.

Tags: women in medicine