March 3, 2022

Women’s History Month: Women in medicine and how they made history at Wayne

Valeria Garcia Flores, Ph.D., at left, and Nardhy Gomez Lopez, Ph.D., are researchers at the Perinatology Research Branch of the National Institutes of Health located at Wayne State University since 2002.

March is Women’s History Month, an annual declared celebration that highlights the contributions of women to history and contemporary society. The Wayne State University School of Medicine is home to countless outstanding women in medicine and science – physicians, teachers, researchers, mentors and more. It is also the site of several programs, offices and organizations developed to support and enhance women’s health, leadership and education. While not a comprehensive list by any means, here are just a few examples from the School of Medicine’s 153-year history that deserve recognition this month, and always.

Anna Spencer Rankin, M.D.

In 1881, 13 years after the School of Medicine opened, Anna Spencer Rankin, M.D., graduated from the Michigan College of Medicine, a precursor of the School of Medicine. She was the first woman to do so. She was elected vice president of the Michigan College of Medicine Alumni Association in 1883. 

Five years later, 17 women from Detroit worked with Charles Devendorf, M.D., a faculty member and Harper Hospital physician and later chief medical officer for Children's Hospital of Michigan, to form the Children’s Free Hospital Association, which provided beds and clothing for sick children regardless of race, religion or ability to pay.

In 1917, four years after the school was reorganized as the Detroit College of Medicine and Surgery, women were again officially admitted to the medical degree program – three years before women secured the right to vote.

Marjorie Peebles-Meyers, M.D.

In 1943, Marjorie Peebles, M.D., became the first African American woman to graduate from the College of Medicine. She also became the first African American female resident and chief resident at Detroit Receiving Hospital, and faculty member at the Wayne State University School of Medicine.

Marion Barnhart, Ph.D., a physiology instructor and hematology researcher, in 1951 became the first full-time female faculty member at what was then the College of Medicine. In 1967, she was promoted to professor, making her the first woman at Wayne State University to achieve that rank. 

Marion Barnhart, Ph.D.

Dr. Barnhart specialized in blood platelet and blood clotting research, and made significant contributions to the treatment of sickle cell anemia. In the late 1960s, she was the first to use scanning electron microscopy to study the pathophysiology of many diseases. She received the university's first Graduate Faculty Award in 1974. At the time of her death in 1985 at age 64 after a traffic accident in Flint, per The New York Times, Dr. Barnhart was director of the Academic Program in Transfusion Medicine, director of the Bargman Laboratory for Cell and Molecular Research, chair of the National Institutes of Health’s Blood Diseases and Resources/Hemostasis Advisory Committee, and a charter member of Wayne State University's Academy of Scholars.

In 1994, Bonnie Sloane, Ph.D., became the first female chair of a department in the School of Medicine. She served as chair of the Department of Pharmacology through 2015. Dr. Sloane, a distinguished professor, also led the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute’s Proteases and Cancer Program.

In addition to conducting her own proteolysis research, Dr. Sloane mentored many researchers, including international scientists. In 2017, the Department of Pharmacology, the School of Medicine and the Karmanos Cancer Institute presented its first international symposium, “Proteases in Cancer Biology,” in tribute to Dr. Sloane. Her work in the field of proteolysis research earned Dr. Sloane a Lifetime Membership Award for outstanding contributions from the International Proteolysis Society in 2010. She served as president of the organization from 1999 to 2001, and on its council from 2003 to 2007.

In 2002, the National Institutes of Health approved a contract to house the Perinatology Research Branch at the School of Medicine. The branch, which focuses on maternal-fetal medicine and preterm birth, is the only NIH branch of its type located outside of Bethesda, Md. Eight years later, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology Sonia Hassan, M.D., working in the PRB, discovered that the daily use of progesterone by pregnant women found to have a shortened cervix via ultrasound reduces the rate of preterm birth by as much as 45 percent.

The School of Medicine hired its first female dean, in 2009. Valerie Parisi, M.D., M.P. H., M.B.A., is an obstetrician/gynecologist, and a national leader in medical education and in the evaluation and certification of physicians. She helped launch and served as co-principal investigator for a federal grant to establish an Area Health Education Center program in Michigan. She served as dean until 2014.

A year earlier, the organization Women in Medicine and Science, or WIMS, was founded. The group works to advance women at all career levels by addressing gender equity, recruitment and retention, awards and recognition, work-life balance and career advancement. WIMS regularly hosts events open to all interested faculty, staff and students in academic medicine and science.

Anna Ledgerwood, M.D.

In 2014, Anna Ledgerwood, M.D., FACS, professor of Surgery, was elected the first female president of the American Surgical Association. She joined the faculty in 1972 and served as trauma director for Detroit Receiving Hospital, and a trauma site visitor to verify hospitals as trauma centers for the American College of Surgeons. She was a frequent guest lecturer at other medical schools and has a special interest in promoting women in the field of surgery.

WSU launched the Make Your Date Program the same year to reduce the rate of preterm birth in Detroit. The comprehensive outreach effort has provided services to between 1,000 and 1,500 pregnant women in Detroit each year. The program provides education, one-on-one counseling, access to insurance, the latest tests and treatment, and referrals to numerous services. A 2019 study showed that women served by Make Your Date were 37% less likely to deliver at less than 32 weeks and 28% less likely to deliver at less than 34 weeks than women delivering at the same hospital who had not participated in the program.

In December 2019, the university launched the Office of Women’s Health, a comprehensive approach that Dr. Hassan, now associate vice president of Women’s Health, founded to improve the health of women overall, through a deep dive into medical research affecting more than half the population of Michigan and the nation, a segment often unintentionally overlooked in research. The office works to improve the health of women to maximize the opportunity for families to thrive and achieve economic security. It also empowers women to lead their healthiest lives through all stages of life by implementing five core pillars: education outreach, research and development, the implementation of science, working to place more women in scientific research and helping to develop policy.

The School of Medicine opened a Maternal Support Room within Scott Hall, coinciding with National Breastfeeding Awareness Month. Room 2103, the first of its type on the medical campus, was celebrated with an Aug. 10, 2020, ribbon-cutting ceremony. Based on insights derived from a student-led study, including data from working and student mothers and an investigation of lactation spaces available at WSU, the study was released in conjunction with the opening of the new room. Understanding the difficulty mothers face as they endeavor to nurse for their infant’s health while working or completing their education, students and faculty associated with the study acted on their findings and presented the need for additional lactation and nursing spaces.

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