P&S Journal: Spring 1994, Vol.14, No.2
Helen Ranney:First Women of Medicine
A "Natural" for Medicine
The mere mention of her name at P&S elicits a spontaneous outpouring of respect and affection from old colleagues, students, and friends, a sentiment put most succinctly by the late Dr. Aura Severinghaus, former associate dean of admissions, in a letter dated June 1, 1946, recommending Dr. Ranney for an internship at Bellevue:
"There are only a few persons whom one admits to medical school with the conviction that here is a 'natural' for medicine. I had that feeling about her upon admission and it has proven correct. She is, in my opinion, one of the best-qualified students we have had at the College of Physicians and Surgeons during my 20 years association with it."
Despite such praise and her outstanding academic record, Dr. Ranney was refused at Bellevue, a reflection of the tenor of the times for women in academic medicine. (Presbyterian Hospital admitted her for an internship and residency in medicine.) Ask her today about any discrimination she might have experienced as a woman and she replies with a shrug: "Well, I never really thought much about it."
A cum laude graduate of Barnard College, Helen Ranney set her sights on medicine from the start.
"Economists, sociologists, and the like study things you can't fix, even if you could find out what was wrong," she says. "Medicine attempts to fix what it studies." The daughter of an upstate New York farmer and avid gadgeteer and an independent-minded school-teacher mother, she was reared with a roll-up-your-sleeves, hands-on attitude to life. "I used to operate a team of horses on the farm," Dr. Ranney proudly recalls.
Rejected when she first applied to P&S in 1941, she managed to turn that early disappointment to her later advantage. She took a job as a laboratory technician at Babies Hospital, where she proceeded to acquire and master the basic lab techniques that would come in handy in her hematology research. (To this day, she still lists her stint in the lab near the top of her curriculum vitae under the rubric "education.") At the encouragement and prompting of her superiors at Babies, she successfully reapplied to P&S.
With America's entry into World War II, the country needed doctors and the new climate favored the acceptance of a small number of qualified women at top medical schools like P&S (which had been admitting a few women since 1917). And because the government was paying tuition for most of the male students, endowed scholarships were available for Dr. Ranney, enabling her to graduate with no debt.
At P&S, Dr. Ranney experienced no marked prejudice. "New York City has generally accepted minorities of any sort with a kind of 'If-you-can-do-it-show-me!' attitude."
And show them she did.
Over the course of her association with P&S and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, as student, intern, resident, fellow, and junior faculty member, she excelled in the dual arena of bench and bedside medicine.
Under the tutelage of the late Dr. Robert Loeb, Dr. Ranney learned the art of patient care. In a tribute at the dedication ceremony of a portrait of Dr. Loeb at P&S last year (See P&S, Fall 1993, for an excerpt of her remarks), she saluted him as the "living example of the knowledgeable, confident, and compassionate physician, concerned about the patient and about the science." By example, Dr. Loeb taught her and generations of doctors how to listen. "I'm always amused nowadays when I get to the clinic and the young doctors tell me that neither the old chart nor this and that test result has come in," she says. "'Why don't you just ask the patient?' I say. 'He'll tell you most of what you want to know.'"
While acknowledging a sometimes daunting side to Dr. Loeb's demeanor, Dr. Ranney says her respect and affection for him overshadowed that, even though "he never much knew what to do with women in medicine." Despite her proven academic talent and inclination, he once tried to persuade her to take a job in student health. When she responded by laughing openly, that was that.
Another P&S faculty member who exerted a profound influence on her teaching style was the late Yale Kneeland'26, professor of medicine and her third-year preceptor. Andrew Frantz'55, professor of medicine and chairman of the Committee on Admissions at P&S (and Dr. Kneeland's nephew), breaks into a broad smile when he remembers Dr. Ranney as his third-year preceptor. In addition to her infectious enthusiasm, her ability to relate to patients and students as individuals, and her in-depth knowledge and painstaking attention to detail, it was her sparkling wit and her way with words that made her such an inspiring teacher. "To this day," he insists, "whenever I supervise a student or take a medical history from a patient, it's her way of doing it that I am conscious of and I can still feel her presence looking over my shoulder and saying: 'Andrew, I think you could sharpen that up a bit!'"