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Inspiring Words, Personal Testaments
Pinn, Maddox Pinch Hit at Women's History Month Celebration

By Carla Garnett

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

It was about 9 a.m. on Mar. 19, just a couple of hours before NIH's 2003 Women's History Month observance was scheduled to begin, when program organizers received a call: Keynote speaker Dr. Donna Christensen, the first female physician elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, could not attend, leaving a huge hole in the center of the celebration. But Lawrence Self, director of NIH's Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management, which sponsored the program, said he was instantly reassured by coworkers in his office: The observance will be fine, they told him. Women always rise to the occasion.


ORWH's Dr. Vivian Pinn
So, the planning committee called on two of its most stalwart supporters — NIH associate director for research on women's health Dr. Vivian Pinn and NICHD deputy director Dr. Yvonne Maddox — who agreed to pinch hit at the program.

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, who offered opening remarks on the program's theme, "Women Pioneers in Health — Past, Present and Future," was not surprised that the program went on without missing a beat.

"My experience here over the past 9 months has been remarkable in the number of women who have had a great role at NIH and that I have had the pleasure to work with — two of them being right here in front of you, Dr. [Ruth] Kirschstein and Dr. Maddox," he said. "When you look at the changing landscape of what we need to do for research, there is no doubt that we need to have everyone work together to advance our progress in biomedical sciences."

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein (l), senior advisor to the NIH director, chats with two champions of women's issues she helped recruit to NIH — NICHD deputy director Dr. Yvonne Maddox (c) and NIH associate director for research on women's health Dr. Vivian Pinn.

Describing women's impact on health and medicine in history and in current times, Zerhouni talked about the first recorded physician in history, a woman who lived 2,700 years before Christ and whose image is painted on an Egyptian tomb in the Valley of Kings. "The healing powers have been historically held by women," he said, "and I think we're going back to that."

Zerhouni also recalled Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. Like so many, he said, Blackwell began her medical career because of her dismay over the unequal social services available at the time.

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni gives remarks.

"Many are driven by the concept of helping reduce social inequities and participating in alleviating the burden and the pain of suffering and disease," Zerhouni pointed out. "I see that in my own wife, who is a pediatrician. The past is replete with examples of women who have contributed to the betterment of health and society. These women left a remarkable legacy. They were resourceful and passionate about their work and their stories are remarkable. There is no doubt in my mind that the 21st century is the century where we are going to have to build a society where all the best and brightest — men and women — can express their creativity and contribute. This is my commitment and this is why I'm pleased to share this occasion with you."

The program also featured an awards presentation by Kirschstein to Pinn and Maddox, on behalf of the committee.

"Dr. Pinn has been for all of us a symbol of what can be done," said Kirschstein, who helped recruit Pinn to NIH in 1991. The award cited Pinn's "superb leadership and guidance as the first [permanent] director at the Office of Research on Women's Health and the significant role she has played in promoting research on women's health."

NICHD's Marianne Duffy sings Sondheim.

Kirschstein then introduced Maddox, who first came to NIH 17 years ago as a health scientist administrator at NIGMS, where Kirschstein was director. "The next award goes to someone also near and dear to my heart, without whom I could not have done what I did from January 2000 to May 20, 2002," Kirschstein said, referring to her own tenure as acting NIH director when Maddox served as her deputy. Maddox was recognized for being a longtime champion of women's issues at NIH.

Entertainment at the observance was provided by Marianne Duffy, an NICHD writer-editor, who sang "Our Time" from Steven Sondheim's Broadway production, Merrily We Roll Along.

In her remarks, Pinn reflected on current world events and common themes that women everywhere share.

"While we're different," she said, "we're also really much the same. Women are looking for similar things within any country: the right to live, the right to good health, the right to age well, and the right to be happy and fulfilled in our lives. Those particular qualities mean different things to different women in different parts of the world, but we all have wanted the same things essentially."

Lawrence Self, OEODM director, concludes event.

Pinn also shared quotes from great women — such as former Secretary of State Madelyn Albright and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt — whose words have inspired Pinn.

"Advancing the state of women is not only a moral imperative," Pinn read from a 1997 Albright speech, "it is being actively integrated into the foreign policy of the United States. It is our mission. It is the right thing to do, and frankly it is the smart thing to do."

Referring to the mandate that created and governs ORWH and other federal components concerned with the status of women, Pinn noted that the United States "may be the only nation that has a legislated mission for its federal government to address issues of women's health" and that such legislation has set the standard for other countries.

Reading a quote from Roosevelt, Pinn said, "I believe we will have better government when men and women discuss public issues together and make their decisions on the basis of their differing areas of concern for the welfare of their families and their world. Too often the great decisions are originated and given form in bodies made up wholly of men or so completely dominated by them that whatever of special value women have to offer is shunted aside without expression."

Kirschstein and planning committee chair Rudene Thomas (c) of the NIH Office of AIDS Research present award to Pinn.

Pinn wondered aloud what Roosevelt would make of women's tremendous advances in all aspects of government in just the past half century or so. She concluded with words by author Mary McCarthy, who said, "We all live in suspense from day to day; in other words, you are the hero of your own story."

"I'm sure each of you in this audience is the hero or heroine of your own story," Pinn noted, "and all of you have some wonderful lessons for Women's History Month that you could tell, if you had been given the opportunity to stand here today...Congratulations to all of you for what you have accomplished, for what you have dreamed and for what you will have the courage to accomplish in the future. As we embark on whatever history brings to us in the coming months, we will acknowledge that on this day we all stood together with pride and courage and hope."

In her turn, Maddox took up Pinn's challenge to share her own story about how her career has unfolded. Since she was a 5-year-old, Maddox said, she had always known that she wanted to be a physician.

"I didn't really know what a doctor was at that age," she said, "but I knew that it was someone to look up to, someone to be respected and revered." Her instructors encouraged her, guiding her into science courses and leading her toward an undergraduate degree in biology.

"It's important for us as women to recognize that some of our outstanding mentors and outstanding role models are men," Maddox pointed out. "My career in science began by having someone who was a male see potential in me and encourage me all the way."

Late in her junior year of college at Virginia Union University and with a scholarship to medical school assured, however, she changed her plans in the face of a family crisis. Her father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Maddox, the eldest child and the only daughter, made a decision to stay close to home and help out her mom and two younger brothers, as her dad's disorder worsened and he died. Med school was put on indefinite hold and Maddox needed a job, quickly. After pounding the pavement, she found a temporary position as a lab specialist in the blood bank at the Medical College of Virginia.

Maddox accepts award with Kirschstein.

"It was there that I gained a lot of information and experience working in a lab," she said, recalling first her duties typing blood and then her next job involving antigens and tissue-typing. "Even on such a small scale, I began asking questions related to medical research. I was hooked."

That 3-month lab job led her eventually to work with widely acclaimed medical scientists Dr. Sami Said and Dr. Peter Ramwell, who became her mentors and who helped her career progress at every stage — despite the inevitable family complications, relocations and other pitfalls that may have discouraged some people from pursuing their dreams. Maddox said she will always remember what her mentor Ramwell told her: Not only did he appreciate her work in the lab, but also he admired her ability to push through roadblocks. "He said, 'I like not only your vigilance and the questions you're asking, but I also like your flexibility.'"

Maddox said NIH'ers and others involved in the health, science, medicine and research arenas would do well to imitate Ramwell's example of mentorship. "We need to do a lot more to recruit and retain women in these important fields," she said. "We also must recognize the need for a critical mass of women in the various disciplines and areas important to the research enterprise." Physicians and research investigators as well as policymakers like Christensen are crucial in the effort, she pointed out.

Finally, Maddox said, women should remember that not everyone finds their success as a researcher or a leader of a lab or as an agency head. The main thing is to have the freedom and flexibility to pursue work that makes you happy and that makes you productive.

"That is the real pleasure of working at NIH," she concluded. "Even though we know there are some roadblocks, we also know that there is an openness here to at least have discussions and come up with solutions."

The program ended with prizes being awarded to Sharrell Butler, Linda Cook, Dr. Patricia Grady and Vicki Malick, who aced a women's history quiz.

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