FEATURE — Fall 2006
   

 
A Century of Progress
Three women physicians share their stories of earlier days at the Washington University School of Medicine.

By Candace O'Connor

In 1906, Washington University School of Medicine enrolled its first woman student—quietly, reluctantly, amid faculty grumbling and outright opposition. Harriet Hirrel Stevens, A.B. '06, took courses for three years as a "special student"—listed slyly in the catalog as "Hirrel Stevens"—and, despite her stellar academic record, was not allowed to graduate with her all-male class. Instead, she received her M.D. degree in 1910 from Rush Medical College in Chicago.

Since that rocky beginning, women have come a long, long way. During the 2005-06 academic year, the first-year School of Medicine class included 60 men and 64 women, with 315 men and 277 women medical students overall. Likewise, house staff statistics for 2005-06 show the remarkable upsurge of women in medicine: among 1,067 residents, 408 are women.

Since this year marks the centennial of the entry of women medical students to Washington University, it seems appropriate to speak to several women graduates of the medical or residency programs to hear about earlier days in medicine and some of the obstacles that women once faced.

Pediatrician Helen Aff-Drum, M.D. '34, was one of only seven women medical students in her class. In the 1930s, obstetrics, ophthalmology, and pediatrics were the only specialties open to women. (Below) Aff-Drum, assistant in clinical pediatrics, is pictured with members of the School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics in spring 1939; she is in the middle row, third from left.

Helen Aff-Drum, M.D. '34, intern 1934-35

St. Louis native Helen Aff grew up play-vaccinating her aggrieved cat and waiting impatiently for the chance to become a nurse—until a friend suggested that, as a doctor, she would be able to give orders instead of take them. In 1927, she began the seven-year pre-med/medical school program at Washington University, where the tuition was $400 a semester.

"It wasn't easy to get through," says pediatrician Aff-Drum, today a youthful 97 ("and a half," she adds), who was one of only seven hardy women medical students. "Many people thought we shouldn't be there—that it was no place for women—and they made it as difficult as they could."

There were exceptions: the legendary pathologist Leo Loeb, who employed Aff-Drum in his lab for a year and regaled her with stories of his escape from Czarist Russia; chemist Helen Tredway Graham, who invited women students to picnics at her home along the Missouri River bluffs; and the marvelous anatomy professor Mildred Trotter, who was tough on women, "wanting us to be better than the boys, to prove that we could do it."

But there was also the male student, recalls Aff-Drum, who stuffed her microscope tube full of worms, as well as the male physicians who brusquely refused to answer her questions. For women, even the choice of specialty was strictly limited, if they stayed in St. Louis. They could become obstetricians (but not do gynecologic surgery), ophthalmologists (but not do eye surgery), or pediatricians. In fact, surgery was out entirely for women until Jessie L. Ternberg, later a well-known pediatric surgeon, became a surgical resident in 1954. (See "A Surgeon's Story" in the fall 2002 Washington University Magazine online: http://magazine.wustl.edu/Fall02/index.html.)

"When I applied for an internship, Dean [W. McKim] Marriott said to me, 'You're not going to get married, are you?' I lied and said, 'No, I won't.'" In fact, she only married St. Louis surgeon Clarence Drum in 1938, after her one-year internship and three years of residency at Johns Hopkins and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia were over. "But I thought that was such a silly question," she says now. "When you've just graduated from medical school, how do you know what you might want to do?"

She and her husband practiced together for years, with Drum delivering the babies and Aff-Drum caring for them. Tuberculosis became her specialty, and she well remembers the paucity of treatments before the miracle drug, streptomycin, came on the scene in the mid-1940s. To treat children with pneumonia, they tried codeine cough syrup; hot, turpentine-infused wraps to reduce abdominal distention; even chicken soup.

From 1945 to 1985, she also worked part time examining children and teachers at Clayton High School, while raising her own daughter, Margaret. Though her husband died in 1960, she still lives in the 19th-century farmhouse they renovated together; each week, she drives out to their Warrenton farm, also enjoyed by three granddaughters and four great-grandchildren. She retired as Washington University associate professor emerita-clinical pediatrics in 1977.

If she could start over today and choose any specialty she wanted? "I would still do pediatrics," she admits. "I love taking care of the babies."

Teresa Vietti, intern, resident, and chief resident 1953-56

As an adult, Teresa Vietti acquired a national reputation as a pediatric hematologist/oncologist, who did pioneering research into treatments for sarcomas and acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In 1980, she helped found and then chaired the Pediatric Oncology Group, a nationwide collaborative study group that did innovative work in childhood cancer. For all these achievements, Vietti acquired a nickname: the "Mother of Pediatric Cancer Therapy."

Teresa Vietti, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist, did her residency at the School of Medicine in the 1950s. She is pictured in the middle row, sixth from the right, with some of the staff of St. Louis Children's Hospital in 1954-55.

Yet this distinguished career had its roots in a routine visit to the doctor's office. Teresa Vietti and her identical twin, Ardel, were only 7 years old in Houston, Texas, when they first got a peek at blood cells through their pediatrician's microscope—and from that moment they were hooked. Soon their father, a physical chemist, bought them a toy microscope of their own.

  "I was sold," says Teresa Vietti, who also recalls examining feathers from her mother's chickens, "I was fascinated by the biological sciences."

  Both sisters went to Rice University and then to Texas medical schools. Intrigued by pediatrics, Vietti spoke to her Baylor College of Medicine department head, Russell Blattner, A.B. '29, M.D. '33, who suggested training at his alma mater. So after graduating from Baylor in 1953, Vietti headed to Washington University and St. Louis Children's Hospital, where residents were paid a meager $10 per month, plus room, board, and laundry. While male residents lived on the hospital's fifth floor, women lived in the hot, dusty Nurses' Home; occasionally, nurses would take pity on the financially strapped Vietti and treat her to a baseball game.

As chief resident, she received a sharp pay raise, to $300 month—and promptly got into trouble. "At that time, residents had to do all their own lab work and, since we were on every other night, that meant we were up for nearly 36 hours at a stretch," she says. "I talked the residents into giving me their $10, put in $100 of my own, and hired a lab technician. Dr. [Alexis] Hartmann found out about it, and he was very upset with me—but he gave us our money back and started paying the technician himself."

The young field of hematology attracted her, in part because she couldn't resist the lure of studying the pathology under a microscope. Leaving Washington University for further training and other jobs, she returned to the pediatric faculty in 1961, becoming full professor in 1972, and chief of pediatric hematology/oncology from 1970 to 1986.

Early in her career, she had the sadness of watching virtually every leukemia or lymphoma patient die, but a wave of potent new therapies soon changed that picture dramatically. She suffered a personal tragedy as well: Her sister, Ardel Vietti, medical director of a leprosarium in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, was captured by Viet Cong in 1962 and never seen again.

Now retired, Vietti wishes she could continue to be part of her field, which was the focus of her life. "I still love science," she says, "and really enjoyed taking care of the children."

Mary Langston Parker, M.D. '53, intern 1953-54

Mary Langston Parker, M.D. '53, chose internal medicine as her specialty though she also spent seven years researching human growth hormone. (Below) Mary Langston Parker's School of Medicine first-year class photo.

An active medical career, a long marriage to a fellow physician—and five children, including a set of twins. Somehow Mary Langston Parker managed to juggle all of this successfully, thanks to her unusual energy and determination. After the birth of her first child, for example, she arranged to be wheeled from the obstetrics floor to a lecture that she couldn't bear to miss.

One of five children herself, Parker grew up in Florida's citrus belt and attended Florida State College for Women, where she was one of three women in her class who went to medical schools. A faculty member persuaded her to apply to Washington University, known to be welcoming to women students—and the School offered her a Jackson Johnson scholarship. Still, she wasn't sure what kind of reception to expect.

"I came to medical school fearing all sorts of abuse on the part of faculty and classmates—heckling, teasing, and so on," says Parker, who joined four other women students in the 100-member class. "I found none of that, and I was pleased to be taken as a fellow student and not as a 'girl.'"

During her last three years, she lived in the Central West End home of Elizabeth Marriott, widow of medical Dean W. McKim Marriott, and "a lovely, lovely woman: gentle, reserved, very well-educated." Each year, Elizabeth Marriott took in one woman student, recommended by the School of Medicine's longtime registrar, William B. Parker. Not only did Parker approve of Mary Langston, so did his son; she and classmate Charles W. Parker, M.D. '53, who met "across cadavers" in the anatomy lab, were married just after graduation in 1953.

First Female Faculty Member

In 1919, a young Norwegian physician arrived in St. Louis, eager to work with W. McKim Marriott, head of the pediatrics department, who had earned an international reputation for his research into infant nutrition. Kirsten Utheim (1890-1949) began in a lowly position, as a volunteer assistant in the dispensary, but she quickly received two promotions as Marriott recognized her ability. In 1920, she was appointed instructor in pediatrics at a salary of $2,000 per year—the first woman on the School of Medicine faculty.

Soon Marriott went even further, taking her on as a collaborator and entrusting her with the supervision of a hospital ward. When Utheim married dentist Guttorm Toverud and returned to Norway in 1923, Marriott wrote approvingly of her work: “In short, I may say that Dr. Utheim has shown herself to be a thoroughly competent clinician, investigator, and teacher of pediatrics.”

Kirsten Utheim Toverud later served as associate pediatrician-in-chief at the National Hospital of Oslo and lectured throughout Europe on pediatrics. A particular interest was diabetes, and she became physician-in-charge of a residential treatment center for diabetic children; she also was the first physician in Norway to use insulin in treating diabetic children.


While Mary Parker was good with her hands, and is today an avid wood turner, she did not test the barrier that kept women from surgery. Internal medicine was her choice, though she also spent seven years researching human growth hormone with endocrinologist William Daughaday. Eventually, her studies—which resulted in some 20 published papers—helped pave the way for the diagnosis and treatment of pituitary dwarfism in children.

When her own children were young, she cut back her schedule, taking a part-time job at Washington University's Student Health Services. In 1971, she accepted the job as director, and over many years of service, she extended health benefits to all students, pioneered a student emergency support team, added space for psychiatric services, established the Employee Assistance Program to help with alcohol problems, and—amid the burgeoning AIDS epidemic—installed condom machines in student dormitories.

While she retired in 1990 as professor emerita of preventive medicine, at age 66, her children have carried on the family's Washington University and medical tradition. One, Sandra Parker Bigg, attended the University as an undergraduate; the other four all graduated from the School of Medicine, including Katherine Parker Ponder, M.D. '83, who is currently on the medical faculty. As Sandra Bigg, A.B. '82, wrote recently about her mother: "In the late '50s and early '60s, she blazed a trail for female physicians to follow—and proved that a woman really could juggle family and career."

Candace O'Connor is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis and author of the University's history book, Beginning a Great Work: Washington University in St. Louis, 1853-2003