June 17, 1999
University Gazette


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HMS Reunion Honors First Female Graduates

By Alvin Powell

Contributing Writer

In the past 50 years, Harvard Medical School (HMS) has gone from graduating its first women to graduating its first class with more than 50 percent women.

While progress has undeniably been made, more needs to occur, said speakers at a forum about women at HMS last week.

Though the Class of 1999 is 50.3 percent women, they still make up just 10 percent of full professors at the Medical School.

"Clearly the population of Harvard Medical School and its affiliated hospitals has undergone a transformation over the last 100 years," said HMS' Assistant Dean for Alumni Affairs and Special Projects Nora Nercessian.

The forum was the third major event over the last several years celebrating the women of the Class of 1949. Four of the 12 women who graduated with that historic class were on hand for the forum. Since the Class of 1949, 1,704 women have graduated from Harvard Medical School.

Raquel Cohen, now a professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami, told the 200 or so audience members that when she was a student at the Medical School, she never believed that she'd be back someday talking about her experiences as a pioneer.

Cohen said the female students had to live in a small boarding house instead of in Vanderbilt Hall with the male students. One daily reminder that they were entering a male bastion, she said, was the men's struggle with what to call them.

"People didn't know how to address us," Cohen said. "The teachers addressed the class as `gentlemen.' "

Still, Cohen said, she feels lucky to have been exposed to the institution's talented teachers. Today, she added, she and other women can tell their daughters that they aren't limited in their roles in life.

"Tell them, `Yes, you can have a career. Yes, you can have children, and yes, you can be a wife,' " Cohen said.

Louise Clark, another member of the Class of '49, said she remembers that a paucity of ladies' rooms was one day-to-day difficulty.

"We knew that half the faculty didn't like women and that was that," Clark said. But many faculty, in fact, did welcome women into the student body. "We had some fabulous mentors they didn't have to be female," Clark said.

The celebration of Harvard Medical's Class of 1949 began four years ago with events marking the anniversaries of the admittance of the women into the class and their arrival on campus.

Speakers described several contemporary programs intended to help women rise into higher-level positions at the school and at affiliated hospitals.

"A lot is happening with women," said HMS Dean for Faculty Affairs Eleanor Shore. "All the programs are attempting to make life a little more supportive for women at critical points in their careers. One example is the 50th Anniversary Program for Scholars in Medicine."

The Scholars in Medicine program, which is in its fourth year, has already awarded 67 fellowships to provide $25,000 for protected time for academic work or for research assistance.

It is intended to help junior faculty who are juggling responsibilities such as child care, care of an elderly relative, or a heavy load of clinical work, so they can do more of the academic work so important to advancing in academia.

The fellowships are also open to men who can prove they have similar child-care or family responsibilities.

Nancy Tarbell, professor of radiation oncology at the Medical School and director of the Partners Office for Women's Careers at Massachusetts General Hospital, said her office was set up specifically to support women faculty and help them develop their careers. The goal, she said, is to get more women in the faculty and in leadership posts.

Anne Bryant, who graduated from Harvard Medical School this year, said the results of the Class of 1949's opening of the Medical School to women was apparent on her first day of classes.

"When I walked into class on the first day, I looked left and right and half the class was men and half was women," Bryant said. "It is empowering, it is energizing, and you feel it doesn't matter what sex you are. You feel you can do anything."

Bryant continued, however, and said when she looked to the front of the class, it was usually a white male who was teaching, which illustrates the task still ahead.

"As a student, it's been wonderful, it's been amazing . . . and we know we can look ahead to much that needs to be done," Bryant said.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College