History of Pathology & Cell Biology at Columbia

Women in Pathology at Columbia

By Heidrun Rotterdam, MD, Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology

 Photo of Dr. Heidrun RotterdamIn my office, there hangs an old photograph of the class of 1922 of the School of Medicine of Columbia University, still in its original frame, brown wood, faded and scratched and probably with its original glass. I rescued it from certain destruction one late evening when the garbage collector was about to take it together with piles of discarded office refuse. The brittle paper is cracked in many places but through the resulting geographic haze, I see 85 stern faces, 79 male, 6 female, all looking straight ahead, lips tightly closed, a faint smile here and there but a real smile with parted lips only on one face, a woman in the lower right corner. I don’t know who she is, but I think she is right to smile: she is one of very few women allowed to study medicine, to graduate and perhaps to have a career thereafter. You’ ve come a long way, baby.

I do recognize one of the other female faces: Dr. Virginia Kneeland Frantz, who became a well known pathologist; her office on the 14th floor of Vanderbuilt Clinic is still there, somewhat altered by repeated renovations, but still of the same shape and size. Dr. Frantz does not smile, she looks as stern as most of her male colleagues. Remember, the first women in our profession needed to constantly prove that they could be as serious and devoted to their profession as men.

As I pursue my inquiry into women in pathology and descend to the “Archives & Special Collections” in the basement of the Long Health Sciences Library I come across some remarkable details related to Dr. Frantz and my photograph of her graduation. Indeed, 1922 was the first year that the School of Medicine of ¬†Columbia University graduated women. In 1917, three years into World War I, due to a drop in male applicants, 13 medical schools, among them the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, broke their all-male admission policy and allowed women to apply. Six women among 85 graduates seems a small number but it represents a big step forward.

Dr. Frantz was the first ever female intern in the Department of Surgery at Presbyterian Hospital from 1922 to 1924 when she advanced to surgical instructor. She branched out into surgical pathology (then a division of surgery) in 1926 and remained a surgical pathologist and researcher for the rest of her life. She was a thyroid specialist, wrote the first description of insulin-producing tumors of the pancreas, was the first to use radioactive iodine to demonstrate and treat metastatic thyroid cancer (both with Dr. Whipple) and wrote the AFIP fascicle on pancreatic tumors in 1959.

Not all Ivy League Medical Schools joined the initial group of 13. Harvard Medical School did not open their doors to women until World War II and women physicians were considered an oddity for quite some time thereafter .When I applied for a residency in Internal Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1968, I was told that I had three strikes against me: I was a woman, I was a foreigner, and I was married to a non-physician. “People like you go into pathology”, someone suggested. And so I did. And I have no regrets.

Women in Columbia PathologyWhere are we today? As I look at our surgical pathology sign-out schedule there are 8 women and 11 men. Our Director of Surgical Pathology is a woman, our department administrator is a woman.  As I look at the list of residents and fellows for the year 2011-2012, I see the mainly smiling faces of 18 women and 15 men. How did we get from there to here (there being a past of struggling individuals, here being a present of groups of curious and happy women who, more or less successfully, balance career and private lives)?

A list of residents that passed through our department starting in 1967 reveals some interesting statistics: During the 20 years before our most recent chairman, Dr. Michael Shelanski, arrived, there were 19 female residents and 65 male residents (M/F ratio 3.4). After his arrival in 1987, the ratio changed remarkably: during the next 20 years, between 1987 and 2007, there were 57 female residents and 74 male residents (M/F ratio 1.3) and between 2007 and 2011 there were 18 female residents and 15 male residents (M/F ratio 0.83). Yes, we have come a long way. We have come to be equals as far as opportunity and achievement are concerned. But is there something unique we, the women in pathology, can offer?

In 1957, when Virginia Frantz was offered the “Elizabeth Blackwell Award”, given to women for distinguished service in medicine, research and teaching, she considered rejecting the award, because it identified her as a ”female” doctor. “I am not a medical oddity”, she is quoted of having said, before she accepted it. On the topic of medical education, she is quoted of having remarked that ”teaching is much more philosophical speculation than formal pedagogy, much more art than science, much more fun than work”. So perhaps it is this element, we the women in pathology, can contribute to our profession: to infuse the science, the service, the teaching with beauty and with joy.

Dr. Heidi Rotterdam was the last trainee in surgical pathology of Dr. Raffaele Lattes from 1974 to 1975. She returned to CUMC as an attending pathologist in July 1991 and has been here since.

Contact the Pathology Webmaster at PathWebMaster@columbia.edu