Throwback Thursday: Women across UCSF History

Thursday, September 24, 2015

On this day in 1987, Dr. Dorothy Ford Bainton became the UCSF School of Medicine's first woman chair of the Department of Pathology. She was the first woman to chair a department in the school since its founding as Toland Medical College in 1864. She later became the Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs in 1994. Dr. Bainton’s research focused on the development and function of white blood cells in defense against infection.

In a Letter to the Editor in the 1987 October issue from Dr. Katheryn May, Associate Professor in the School of Nursing, wrote that “Dr. Bainton's achievement is impressive, and probably merited more attention that it was paid,” and later noted that the headline “UCSF’s First Woman Chair,” was very misleading because as Dr. May put it, “Med School does not equal UCSF.” Perhaps she felt Synapse had a tendency to report news from the School of Medicine as if that institution constituted the entire campus.

These comments belie the fact that the announcement was only three sentences long accompanied by Dr. Bainton’s picture squeezed into the lower left corner of the front page under the weight of the “Regents renew contracts for nuclear weapons labs” headline and story. Nevertheless, many women pioneers over the years have reached milestones at UCSF. Today we will briefly revisit some of them.

First, let’s revisit when UCSF began to admit and matriculate women through the different specialties. In 1876, Lucy Wanzer became the first female graduate of the Medical Department after the UC Regents adopted a new policy on September 15, 1874, that stated "young women offering themselves for admission and passing the required examination must be received to all the privileges of the Medical Department."

Dentistry and Pharmacy followed, almost a decade later. Maria Angelina Burch graduated from the College of Dentistry in 1883 and Josephine Eugenia Barbat graduated in the College of Pharmacy class of 1884. The creation of the Training School for Nurses within the University of California in 1907 also helped to increase the number of women in the field of medicine. Two years later, Lillian Cohen was its first graduate.

That same year, in 1907, eighty-years before Dr. Bainton’s appointment as department chair, Margaret Crawford became the first female dean of any school in UCSF for the School of Nursing. Later, Karin Vargervick was Interim Dean for a short period from 1994-1995 for the School of Dentistry. The School of Pharmacy lagged behind by waiting until 1998 to appoint their first female dean, Mary Anne Koda-Kimble. 

Women ascending to the most senior leadership at UCSF has taken even longer. Nearly a decade later after the School of Pharmacy appointed a female chair, and 22 years after Dr. Bainton’s chair appointment, Susan Desmond-Hellman, MD, MPH became UCSF's 9th Chancellor from 2009-2014 and the first woman in this position. Most recently, in 2013, regents appointed Janet Napolitano as the 20th president of the University of California.

In her brief and yet memorable comments, Dr. May focused on two major issues: the lack of appreciation for the accomplishments of female faculty and staff at UCSF and how people overlook the breadth of programs UCSF offers. Today, we recognize female pioneers across schools, from the brave pioneers who first matriculated from UCSF - choosing to pursue medical professions before women even had the right to vote- to recent milestones reached by modern women.

While honoring these women, we also note that only two years ago, in 2013, did UCSF appoint a woman to senior-most leadership, and women remain underrepresented in leadership positions across all schools. We hope that in the Synapse issues of tomorrow, appointment of women to important leadership roles becomes commonplace enough that it truly is no longer news.