BETHESDA,Md. – They have inspired. They have healed. They have saved.
Although they were long met by sexist resistance,generations of women physicians have persevered to change the face of medicine in America.
A new National Institutes of Health exhibition at the National Library of Medicine honors their contributions.
Unveiled in October,the huge interactive display shares the stories of more than 300 American doctors whose achievements helped break down gender barriers in their profession.
Jane Henney,56,an oncologist and public health administrator from Cincinnati,is one of them.
She said it's remarkable to see what women like herself have done in the last 150 years. “Everything you do really touches people's lives and people's health,” Henney said.
She became the first woman commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998.
Born in the tiny town of Woodburn,Ind.,in 1947,her medical inclinations surfaced early on.
“At 5 years old I remember asking for a doctor's kit,” Henney said.
Although women's few career options – teacher,nurse or secretary – were well understood in those days,her family always supported her aspirations.
“It was very fortunate that I had a mother who encouraged me,” Henney said.
In high school,Henney read a book about Elizabeth Blackwell,the first American female physician. About the same time,a family friend was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Throughout her suffering,the woman shared intimate details of the disease and the investigative drugs she was taking with the adolescent girl. “She let my curiosity invade what was probably her privacy,” Henney said.
The experience later informed Henney's decision to become an oncologist.
“Through her eyes I came to understand how complex cancer is,” she said.
Although she undoubtedly faced discrimination during her career,Henney said she has blocked most of it from her memory.
If someone tried to discourage her,she said she considered it free advice that she didn't have to use.
“Women really had to muster up their own courage that,come what may,they were going to make a difference,” Henney said.
Ironically,it was a man who finally convinced her that she really should go on to medical school.
As an undergraduate biology major at Manchester College in North Manchester,Ind.,Henney said she spent a lot of time tutoring male classmates in the sciences. A male professor recognized her potential and told her she should pursue a degree in medicine.
“His affirmation that I could do it meant a hell of a lot,” Henney said.
She earned her medical degree from Indiana University in 1973.
In addition to her FDA post,she was deputy director of the National Cancer Institute and has also held high-ranking administrative positions at the University of Kansas and the University of New Mexico. She is currently senior vice president and provost for health affairs at the University of Cincinnati.
Henney's accomplishments place her in the rank of such other successful women as the first female surgeon general,Antonia Novello,the National Football League's first woman team doctor,Leigh Ann Curl,and Blackwell.
Patricia Touhy,head of the exhibition program at the National Library of Medicine,said the hundreds of stories in the exhibit should leave all visitors thinking,“I want to be a doctor!”
Collecting the biographies and artifacts and conducting the interviews necessary to create the display took nearly three years,she said.
Every living doctor included in the exhibit was interviewed.
Visitors can browse the archive on computer monitors and pull up biographies and video clips on giant TV screens. Old operating room equipment and other historic items are housed under glass in another area of the exhibit.
After watching a video clip of her interview,Mary Ellen Avery of Massachusetts said visiting the exhibit was like “a big reunion.”
“So many of these people are people I've known,” the 76-year-old pediatrician said.
In 1974,Avery became the first woman physician-in-chief at Children's Hospital in Boston. She was inspired to go into medicine by another pediatrician featured in the exhibit,the late Emily Partridge Bacon of Pennsylvania.
The exhibit will be up until spring 2005. Touhy said a condensed version will begin a tour of libraries around the country soon.
A companion web site to the project contains every biography and includes a section where people can add their own doctor stories.
Visit “Changing the Face of Medicine” on the Internet at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/exhibition/.