P&S Journal: Spring 1994, Vol.14, No.2
Helen Ranney:First Women of Medicine
Metabolic and Academic Pathways
It was during her postdoctoral training in the Department of Biochemistry at P&S that Dr. Ranney began clinical investigations in sickle cell disease in addition to her hematological studies with Irving London. The department, then under the direction of Hans Thatcher Clarke, had an outstanding reputation, thanks in part to Dr. Clarke's recruitment of the cream of scientific exiles from Nazi Germany. "P&S had without a doubt the most exciting biochemistry department in the country," Dr. Ranney recalls. "They were one of the first groups to use isotopes to trace body elements, they knew about metabolic pathways."
Combining the technical laboratory expertise she learned at Babies Hospital with her newly acquired biochemical know-how and clinical experience, she devised an experimental means of establishing precisely how the molecular structure of normal human hemoglobin differs from abnormal hemoglobin found in the red blood cells of individuals with sickle cell anemia, a disorder most common among African-Americans.
Employing Presbyterian Hospital's clinic population, which at the time included a large and stable African-American population, she was able to study the normal and abnormal hemoglobin found in members of the same family, providing some of the first evidence of a genetic link. To Dr. Ranney, the science was never far removed from the person. "I've never liked the strictly abstract," she admits. "If you get to be very good at the biophysics of the thing, you become so theoretical you stop doing experiments and just calculate how they would come out if you did them."
Dr. London moved on to Albert Einstein College of Medicine, soon inviting Dr. Ranney to join him. There she pursued her study of abnormal hemoglobin and was named professor of medicine in 1965. In 1970, she left Einstein to accept an appointment as professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In 1973, when the University of California, San Diego, went looking for a new chair of medicine, Dr. Ranney made history.
In recommending her for the position, Paul Marks'49, then dean of P&S and now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, called her "one of the nation's outstanding investigators in the area of hemoglobinopathies and the structure and function of normal and abnormal hemoglobins." Dr. Marks noted that in addition to her excellence in clinical investigation, she was "an outstanding clinician and a superb teacher...a person of the highest integrity and quality."
Her reputation has only risen over the years as honors and achievements attest. Her 16-page curriculum vitae documents them, including the Gold Medal of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Achievement Award for Outstanding Contribution in the Field of Sickle Cell Anemia. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and member of the National Academy of Sciences; co-author of two noted textbooks and more than 100 papers in hematology; a former member of the Board of Directors of the Squibb Corp.; and distinguished physician at the VA Medical Center in San Diego.
When Dr. Ranney compares the climate for women in academic medicine then and now, she offers a sober appraisal: "When you think back, had I been a man at Columbia, I probably would have had a faculty appointment earlier rather than later. Things have definitely opened up a fair amount for women, but I still don't think that, by and large, they are nearly as well-represented on the faculties as they are in the student bodies in medical schools."
She attributes that partly to women not being able to undertake the period of advanced scientific training they need. She has used the strength of her reputation to lobby at the NIH and elsewhere for the creation of academic support systems to help women assistant professors who take a leave of absence to have a family "get the essential scientific re-tooling without the pressure of grant hunting" upon their return to teaching and research.
When asked about the future of medicine, Dr. Ranney responds with her characteristic mix of irony and excitement: "Clearly what we think now will appear amateurish in another 20 years, just as when I look back 20 or 25 years, I sometimes have to laugh at the things we took for granted."