P&S Journal: Spring 1995, Vol.15, No.2
Virginia Kneeland Frantz 1896-1967
By Nicholas P. Christy'51
This series, Faculty Remembered, features profiles of former faculty members at P&S. The author of the series is a 1951 P&S graduate and former professor of medicine. He is now special lecturer in medicine and writer-in-residence at P&S.
In its distinguished past, P&S had many brilliant periods. The college was ahead of its time during the great 1930-60 era, boasting an unrivaled faculty that included several stellar women. Among these, Virginia Frantz chose perhaps the hardest road of any: surgery, then an unheard-of career for a woman.
Born in New York, she attended Brearley School, then Bryn Mawr College, majoring in chemistry, excelling also in the humanities. First in her 1918 class, many things urged her into medicine: Her mother was a hospital trustee; the president of Bryn Mawr had encouraged her; the suffragist movement was changing society while the Flexner report changed medicine; World War I reduced the number of men applying to medical schools.
From P&S she emerged second in her class in 1922, becoming the first woman appointed a surgical intern at Presbyterian. As a third-year medical student she had married neurologist Angus Frantz in 1920; by 1930 there were three children. The rigors of raising a family and the advice of her seniors convinced her to eschew a career as a clinical surgeon.
Locally, at P&S and PH, Dr. Frantz-known as "VKF"-became instead an outstanding teacher and investigator. A fast, accurate, and decisive worker, she accomplished an astonishing amount. Around 1924 she began, with A.P. Stout, W.C. Clarke, and, later, Raffaele Lattes, in the new field of surgical pathology. Here her special talent lay in making the histologic slide pertinent to the clinical problem-by attending ward rounds and separately visiting the patient under study. Her interest in the thyroid stimulated her to found a multidisciplinary thyroid clinic that functions still.
For 38 years she taught second-year surgery-great fun for students-emphasizing the healing of wounds. From that course arose her textbook "Introduction to Surgery," so successful it demanded four editions. To monitor its accuracy and induce students to read it carefully, VKF and her co-author, H.D. Harvey, mounted a continuing contest: For each typo, the two would pay the student-detective 25 cents, for each error of fact, $2. Witnesses report intense haggling over the alleged mistakes. She concurrently taught third-year surgical pathology, finding time to serve zealously on the Admissions Committee and act as counselor to the dozens of students who sought her advice. Not the least of her gifts to P&S: She compelled her younger brother, Yale Kneeland Jr., to abandon literature and study medicine.
Outside of Columbia, VKF's research achievements made her world-famous. The Stout-Frantz-Lattes "troika" led the field in surgical pathology. She did notable early work in cancer and cystic disease of the breast and discovered that osseous metastatic lesions from thyroid cancer could take up I-131, a finding important for diagnosis and treatment. With A.O. Whipple, the famous chairman of surgery, she made pioneering studies of pancreatic insulinomas, writing in 1959 the fascicles on this topic for the Army's "Atlas of Tumor Pathology," treatises that remained definitive for decades. Her contributions to thyroidology earned her the presidency of the American Thyroid Association in 1962-the first woman and one of only two to be so honored; in 1966 that organization gave her its Distinguished Service Award. During World War II, with Dr. Lattes, she developed oxidized cellulose, a hemostatic absorbable gauze, useful enough for the military to win her an Army-Navy Citation.
At Columbia, as was customary in those times, her promotions came slowly but in 1967 the college recognized her superb teaching, giving her a Bicentennial Silver Medal. Many honors came to her from outside: She was appointed consultant to many prestigious hospitals, she received medals from the New York Infirmary and the American Radium Society, and the New York Pathological Society made her president. Bryn Mawr offered her its presidency; she declined, wishing to stay in medicine. She kept up her many activities to the moment of retirement in 1962 as professor emeritus and consultant in surgery.
A woman "of stately mien," with direct gaze, purposeful stride, and the dignified look of a lady from an earlier age, she endeared herself to students chiefly by her humor. Recalling her great mentors-Stout, Clarke, Whipple-she liked referring to herself as "the handmaiden to the gods." In truth, she knew very well the foibles of her old chiefs and had a proper sense of her own worth. She won also the hearts of the surgical residents she taught. When she entertained them in her home, her friendly, gracious hospitality was especially prized because it was lavished impartially on all, on "persons of no consequence," even on interns.
When VKF died in 1967, we knew P&S lost a great teacher and a great personality. As is usual with students, we appreciated less adequately her great stature as pioneer and scientist.
The writer acknowledges indispensable help from Dr. Andrew G. Frantz of the Department of Medicine, VKF's son; Dr. Keith Reemtsma, former chairman of surgery; and Dr. Raffaele Lattes, professor emeritus of surgical pathology. For an illustrative anecdote about VKF's scientific curiosity, see Dr. Lattes's forthcoming "History of Surgical Pathology in P&S" to learn about how she drove a long distance to perform an autopsy on a cow.