In addition to this post, I recently co-wrote about the importance of recruiting and retaining women in the field of neurology in an editorial published in the journal Neurology*
Although it hurts me to admit it, I am what the New York Times would call “a woman of a certain age”. As such, I was mentored and nurtured as a scientist and physician largely by men, almost all of them white and almost all of them much senior to me. This was not at all a bad thing. It was as it was then and I was grateful for their guidance and vote of confidence. Indeed, these men were, themselves, outliers and pioneers – men who welcomed a woman as a trainee and then colleague were not particularly common in science and medicine in the 1970s. But there were two remarkable women who did take me under their wings and usher me into science and medicine with a woman’s approach. These women – Sofia Simmonds, Ph.D. and Maria New, M.D. – were neither perfect nor doing exactly what I wanted to do. But they fueled my passion for intellectual pursuit and alleviation of human suffering and showed me I did not have to become someone or something else to be a part of that world. Here are their stories.
In the Fall of my second year as a Yale undergraduate student, I took a class required for my major that presented the fundamental concepts and mechanisms of biochemistry and biophysics. As with all my courses, most of the professors were men; but one, a woman named Sofia Simmonds, stood out from the rest. And not just because of her gender! She looked somewhat austere, with her hair pulled back in a bun and her conservative dress, and she was no push-over when it came to pulling your weight as a student in the course. I honestly think it was more how much she reminded me of some of my relatives – a well-educated, tailored woman from the New York City of the generation before mine – more than just her gender, that made me gravitate towards her.
She had been an undergraduate student at Barnard College and obtained her Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Cornell Medical School in the laboratory of Nobel laureate, Vincent du Vigneaud. She spent a short time at Cornell as a research faculty member, but moved to Yale in 1945 with her husband, biochemist Joseph Fruton, who had obtained a position there as Associate Professor. Given the prevailing attitude at the time regarding women who were academicians in the same field as their husbands, it is not surprising that Simmonds’ initial appointment was as Instructor and she progressed through the academic ranks rather slowly despite her formidable body of work as a scientist and as a teacher, becoming full Professor in 1975.
It is now 45 years since I met Sofia Simmonds. She and her husband passed away in 2007 within a couple of days of one another. But I still remember as if it were yesterday her approaching me as I left the classroom after her lecture one morning, the day before the midterm exam. I was certain I had done something wrong! She said, “I have an extra ticket for the Yale Symphony concert tonight,” as she handed me the ticket. I protested, “But Dr. Simmonds, it’s the night before the big exam! I have to study!” She looked solemnly directly into my eyes and said, “You have studied enough. And if I find out that you did not attend the concert, you will surely fail the exam!” I thanked her, left the classroom, and, of course, attended the wonderful concert that night. And I did pass the exam. But much more valuable, I learned that even the most hard-driving academicians think it’s a good idea to take some time to stop and smell the roses once in a while.
In my first year as a medical student at what was then called Cornell University Medical College, as part of a longitudinal course given by the Department of Social Work, I was assigned to follow a preschool-age Zuni girl who had come to be evaluated and treated by the Chief of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, Maria New. The course was designed to introduce medical students to the psychosocial challenges of illness and hospitalization while they were still taking their pre-clinical courses and before they were out on the hospital units caring for patients. I kept a diary of my interactions with the youngster and had weekly discussions with social worker Alice Ullmann. Somewhere along the line, I was reading the child’s medical chart (These were the days when they were handwritten on lined paper in a metal “loose-leaf book” of sorts!) when Dr. New came looking for it. She had just examined the child and was ready to write her note.
I knew she was famous in endocrinology circles and was not about to strike up a conversation! Besides, what she was about to do was critical for the child’s health. I was just learning the ropes and playing with a kid! Maria New obtained her undergraduate degree from Cornell and her M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She did her internship at Bellevue Hospital and her residency at New York Hospital. She did fellowship training in Pediatric Endocrinology at the NIH, and then joined the faculty of the medical school at Cornell. Her research has defined and discovered the mechanisms of many disorders of steroid hormones produced by the adrenal gland. She is currently a professor of Pediatrics, Genomics, and Genetics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
After she had finished writing her note, Dr. New handed the chart back to me. She asked who I was and, without missing a beat, then began explaining the child’s illness and medical course to me. I felt deeply honored, having been a medical student for a few weeks. I continued to visit the child and discuss the challenges she and her family in the Southwest faced with Alice Ullmann. A week or two later, I saw Maria New again. She nodded hello and went on with her rounds. As she was leaving the unit, she suddenly turned around and said, “I would like you to come to Pediatric Endocrinology case conference. It takes place every Tuesday at noon. We order sandwiches for lunch from the deli across the street. What should we order for you?”
I almost fell over! But this was the beginning of a long mentoring relationship that is meaningful to me even now. When I told Dr. New I was hoping to become a child neurologist, she spent about an hour telling me she would feel better if I was hoping to become a pediatric neuro-endocrinologist. I felt both guilty and humbled that it mattered so much to her. I often think of these interactions when I am mentoring students and trainees. They made me realize how intensely encouraging just a small amount of attention from and being treated like a colleague by an admired senior mentor can be.
Like Dr. Simmonds, Dr. New is known as a stickler for excellence and neither suffered fools or went easy on students or trainees. But their zeal for the perpetuation of their respective areas of expertise and their passion for enabling and empowering the future workforce made a powerful impression on many that has lasted for decades.
*Schor, NF and Brashear, A. “Saving Neurology – Once More With Feeling” Neurology December 5, 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000008569