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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Spring 1996, Vol.16, No.2
Faculty Remembered: Howard C. Taylor Jr. 1900-1985

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.

Howard Taylor, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at P&S from 1946 to 1965, created a new department and revolutionized American obstetrics and gynecology. He had great intelligence and energy but the qualities that made him unique were original thought, a gift for recognizing and solving problems, and uncanny foresight.

Taylor early established himself as a leader, winning top grades at school, graduating summa cum laude from Yale, leading his class at P&S (Class of 1924), becoming an outstanding gynecologic surgeon, making major scientific contributions, and being appointed chairman of OB/GYN at the University of Pennsylvania-all before turning 40. From 1929 to 1946 he studied gynecologic and mammary cancer at New York's Memorial Hospital, which made him gynecologist-in-charge in 1943-46, NYU simultaneously appointing him chairman of obstetrics/gynecology.

Assuming the P&S chairmanship in 1946 (he was also chief of Presbyterian's obstetrical and gynecological services, director of the Sloane Hospital for Women, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and, later, Willard C. Rappleye Professor Emeritus), he transformed a solid clinical department into a unit where scientists and clinicians worked harmoniously together. Medical students enjoyed the course in OB/GYN and Taylor attracted an excellent house staff: 21 of his residents became department chairmen. Long concerned that obstetrics and gynecology did not attract talented medical school graduates, he worked with the Josiah Macy Foundation to provide funds for Macy Scholars in academic OB/GYN departments, enabling residents to spend a year or more studying reproductive sciences during house staff training.

Taylor's scientific work spanned 50 years: 1929 to 1979. His first paper reported ways to predict the clinical behavior of ovarian tumors from their histologic appearance. In 1932 he was first to show systematically the connection between endometrial hyperplasia and uterine carcinoma. In the '30s he and others devised a method of measuring estrogen in blood in an effort to link sex hormones with gynecologic and breast disorders-perhaps the first clinical use of blood estrogen. In 1949 Taylor identified a new clinical syndrome relating abdominal pain in women to pelvic vascular congestion. Arguably, he made his most far-reaching contribution in "social obstetrics" by introducing the seemingly simple idea that the cheapest, most effective way to approach family planning in developing countries was by integrating birth control instruction with maternity services.

Taylor did much as an educator. In 1945 he wrote a prophetic book, "The Mission of a Medical School." From the 1930s to the 1950s he publicly advocated birth control long before this was respectable in academe, for which he won the 1954 Lasker Award. As an officer of the American Cancer Society he publicized the relation between smoking and lung cancer-this in 1959, five years before the Surgeon General's report. In 1961 he published a revolutionary volume on how to recruit talent for medical school departments. As co-editor, then chief editor of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (1953-69), he introduced a peer-review system for scientific articles, making the Journal the most read and most authoritative in the field.

Nationally and internationally Dr. Taylor's influence could be measured by his membership in about 40 prestigious OB/GYN societies, which he served variously as founder, president, or honorary member. A more accurate and telling picture of him emerges from an account of how he spent his last years-1965 to 1985-after officially retiring as chairman at P&S. He kept on innovating, producing one more book and 30 more papers. (In all, he wrote 186 articles and three books.) Immediately on retirement he assumed the directorship of the International Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction at P&S, which he founded and for which he raised much of the money from the NIH and Ford and Rockefeller foundations. The institute comprised the Center for Reproductive Sciences and the Center for Population and Family Health. Today, the institute thrives with 75 scientists in diverse fields. Leaving the institute at age 70, he was appointed senior consultant to the Population Council and spent much of the next decade traveling widely throughout the Third World, putting into practice his idea of connecting family planning programs to maternity services. P&S did not forget him during this time, giving him the Alumni Gold Medal for Excellence in 1975.

To medical students and junior residents it was not easy to reconcile Taylor's patrician, somewhat forbidding exterior with the radical reformer, many of whose advanced ideas were strongly resisted by his professional peers when he first put them forward. His manner was formal but not distant; he was loved by his house staff, revered by his colleagues.

Born into old New York society (his father was a distinguished gynecologist and, for a time, gynecologist-in-chief at Roosevelt Hospital, where the younger Taylor trained), Dr. Taylor was politically liberal; in science and medicine he was a revolutionary. All his life he operated at a level 25 to 40 years ahead of his time. His home in Southport, Conn., designed by an avant-garde architect, was startlingly modernistic. When he left his P&S chairmanship he must have known that he had built the leading scientific obstetrical department in the country. More, he provided the main impetus that brought science into academic obstetrics and gynecology in the United States. Characteristically for him, stepping down as chairman at P&S was only the beginning.

The writer acknowledges advice and materials he received from many individuals: Georgiana Jagiello, the Virgil G. Damon Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Allan G. Rosenfield, dean of the School of Public Health; Seymour Lieberman, professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biophysics; Equinn Munnell, M.D.; Howard C. Taylor III (Dr. Taylor's son and a 1955 P&S graduate); and the administrative staff of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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