FEATURES • Fall 2002

Professor Emerita Jessie Ternberg was the first female resident in surgery at the School of Medicine. Over the course of her career and life, she has been a dedicated doctor, a great mentor, and a true leader.

By David Linzee

During her internship at Boston City Hospital in 1954, Jessie L. Ternberg decided that she wanted to be a surgeon. But she could not find a surgical residency program that would even consider an application from a woman. In desperation, she wrote to Carl Moyer, the head of surgery at her own medical school, Washington University in St. Louis. "I told him I thought it was a bum rap they wouldn't take women," Ternberg says. "He agreed—and he accepted me."

But when she arrived in St. Louis and attempted to check in, she was told there were no women on the list of surgical residents. Ternberg wondered if Moyer had told anyone else that he had accepted her. "It was hot as hell and I was standing there with all my belongings in a suitcase. I thought, 'Now what'll I do?'"

She was, in fact, on the list. The name "Jessie" had caused the confusion. This would continue to be an annoyance, because with each milestone in her career at Washington University, she would be the first of her gender to get there: first woman chief resident, first woman surgeon on the faculty, first woman to head the medical school faculty council. She took a leading role in establishing the Division of Pediatric Surgery and was named its chief in 1972. In ensuing years, she performed up to 500 operations annually and published notable reports on her research. She became professor emerita in 1996. She has received many awards, including the Washington University Alumni Award, the International Women's Year Award for Health Care, and the first Aphrodite Jannopoulo Hofsommer Award.

"Jessie Ternberg was a pioneer in pediatric surgery—and a great role model for women in medicine, and indeed in other professions as well," says William A. Peck, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. "We are fortunate that Dr. Ternberg pursued her career at Washington University and St. Louis Children's Hospital."

"It was physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging," says Diane Merritt, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, who trained under Ternberg. "Yet Jessie was tough. She rose to the challenge and defied any who placed obstacles in her way."

"If you had told me as a kid that I would be a surgeon, I would have laughed," Ternberg says. "I didn't know any surgeons—let alone women surgeons." She grew up in a small town in Minnesota, where she and her two brothers lived with their mother and grandmother. The Depression was dragging on and money was hard to come by, but Ternberg had aspirations. "I wanted to go to college so bad I could taste it," she recalls. "I was willing to do anything not to end up a typist."

She attended Grinnell College on a Younker's scholarship, earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1946. Then she went to the University of Texas (UT) to study for a doctorate in biochemistry. In 1949, she and Professor Robert Eakin reported their discovery of the mechanism by which vitamin B-12 is absorbed in the intestine (B-12 deficiency leads to pernicious anemia). Since Ternberg was thinking of going to medical school after completing her doctorate, R.J. Williams, head of UT's biochemistry department and her thesis adviser, who knew Carl and Gerty Cori (Nobel Prize winners in Medicine) and Carl Moore, then head of hematology, advised her to apply to Washington University School of Medicine, where she might be able to continue her research under Moore. Having already heard glowing reports about the School of Medicine from a Grinnell classmate, she applied, and was accepted. She also was awarded a Jackson Johnson scholarship.

"Moore was a fantastic man," she recalls. "When I was a first-year student, he asked me to talk about my work at grand rounds, and it really scared me. To this day, I have no idea how it went." It must have gone well, because Ternberg was able to continue her anemia research under Moore. She earned her medical degree in 1953.

 

"She has served as a role model, mentor, and inspiration for generations of Washington University students," says Diane Merritt, professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

She soon discovered that surgery was what most excited her. She liked the challenge of learning all a surgeon needs to know, and the likelihood that knowledge would not be enough and character would be put to the test. "No matter how well prepared you are," she says, "you may not find what you expected. But you can't say, 'Close up and I'll go home and think about this.'"

As a resident, Ternberg found there were no accommodations for women surgeons, so she slept in the nurses' dormitory, or on a spare gurney in the hospital. There were no women's dressing rooms either, so she used the nurses' locker room and waited outside the surgeons' dressing room door until the men were ready.

 

 

 

Persevering, she joined the medical school faculty as an instructor in surgery in 1959. For many years, she was the only full-time general surgeon covering Children's Hospital. She became a master of her craft whose skill was widely recognized. Professor Merritt notes that when St. Louis pediatricians examined patients and noticed especially tiny scars, they would say, "I can see Dr. Ternberg did your surgery."

When she was asked to set up a pediatric surgery division, she encountered many problems, including a lack of operating rooms dedicated to pediatrics. Because the majority of operations on children are emergency procedures, it was essential to have rooms ready for them. "Once the division was started, it grew like Topsy," Ternberg recalls. She became chief of pediatric surgery in 1972 and in 1975 was named professor of surgery in pediatrics.

She also continued to publish reports on her research. In one study, she applied electron spin resonance spectrometry to the investigation of free radicals, unstable molecules that can damage the body. Her best-known publication is A Handbook of Pediatric Surgery, which became a standard reference work. Ternberg hopes that the handbook helped surgeons understand that diseases take different forms in children; they cannot be treated as if they were just small adults.

Ternberg loves treating children because "they're so great at bouncing back. The day after surgery, you'll have a struggle to keep a child in bed." On her office wall hangs a collage of patient snapshots, some taken at the time she treated them, others more recently. Over the years she has continued to receive announcements of their graduations, marriages, and births.

In training young pediatric surgeons, Ternberg emphasized that they must take time to talk with both children and their parents. One student, Richard Karl, recalls how that lesson was driven home by a frightening experience. A few years after completing his training at Children's Hospital, he found a mass in the neck of his own child. "I bundled her up and jumped on a plane to see Dr. Ternberg," he says. "She showed great concern for me as well as for my child. She took the time to reassure me—as a dad, not a doctor." Karl, now the Richard G. Connar Professor and chairman of the Department of Surgery, University of South Florida College of Medicine, esteems Ternberg for her strength, grace, and intelligence. "She had high standards, and she taught us that we could aspire to achieve those standards for ourselves."

In 1998, former students and colleagues established the Jessie L. Ternberg Award, to be given annually to a female medical school graduate who exemplifies her qualities. Ternberg, who had to wait 20 years for another woman to follow in her footsteps as a surgical resident, is pleased with what she sees now. "Women entering medicine today are full of zest," she says. "They won't be pushed around. I'm awed by what this generation of women is doing." Merritt, noting that Ternberg encouraged her to enter the field of pediatric gynecology, says, "She has served as a role model, mentor, and inspiration for generations of Washington University students." Karen O'Malley, professor of anatomy and neurobiology and past-president of the Academic Women's Network, adds, "Her success and intrinsic generosity empowered and encouraged those who followed her."

Now semi-retired, Ternberg enjoys not having to go in for 7 a.m. rounds and being free to read widely and travel. But she still keeps up with the medical journals and is a contributor to a research project in pediatric oncology. She also was chosen to serve as Honorary Grand Marshal for Washington University's 2002 Commencement ceremony. At her own medical school graduation, she had missed out on the procession. "I'd had an accident at the senior dance," she says. "They wouldn't let me march because my leg was in a cast." In 40-plus years at Washington University, that may be the only thing that has ever held Jessie Ternberg back.

David Linzee is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.

 

 

 

Professor Emerita Jessie Ternberg, now semi-retired, has more time to read and travel. At her home in St. Louis County, she shows her collection of chess pieces (in front) and many collectibles from her world travels (back wall).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Among her many "firsts" at the School of Medicine, Dr. Jessie Ternberg (left, standing) was the first woman chief resident, first woman surgeon on the faculty, and first woman to head the medical school faculty council.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Ternberg (front) played a leading role in establishing the Division of Pediatric Surgery and was named its chief in 1972.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Professor Emerita Jessie Ternberg served as the Honorary Grand Marshal for Washington University's 2002 Commencement ceremony.