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National Women’s History Month: Recognizing pioneer in medicine Dr. Vivian W. Pinn

By Louis W. Sullivan, MD

Dr. Vivian W. Pinn with Dr. Louis W. Sullivan

Photo Credit: Coe Sweet

In honor of National Women’s History Month, this month’s blog recognizes a living legend, medical pioneer, and friend of The Sullivan Alliance, Dr. Vivian W. Pinn. Dr. Sullivan’s speech from last September’s Dedication of the Vivian Pinn Building at The University of Virginia (UVa) in Charlottesville, VA seems an appropriate way to remind us of the challenges that this historic, trail-blazing woman has overcome, the successes she has achieved, and the path she has laid for today’s and tomorrow’s  health professionals.

“The dedication of this building in honor of Vivian Pinn, at this esteemed institution, is a remarkable and laudable event in the history of medical education in the United States.

Our nation was founded upon the principles of freedom, equality and democracy. One of our nation’s revered founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was also founder of the University of Virginia and the writer of the declaration of independence. But, Thomas Jefferson was also a slave owner. His slaves, of African descent, toiled on his Virginia plantation, and in the construction of the buildings of this university.

The United States we know today has emerged; has developed out of this paradox, over the past 241 years since the declaration of independence.

The University of Virginia has changed significantly also over this period, so that today, there are African American students, faculty and deans as full members of Mr. Jefferson’s academic community.

How did this happen? It occurred because of our nation’s commitment to the ideals articulated by our founding fathers - ideals which have never been fully attained in our society. But, over the decades and over the centuries, we have made progress in closing the gaps between our professed ideals and our daily experiences in our interactions with each other.

Vivian Pinn

Photo Credit: Coe Sweet

Vivian Pinn, member of the class of ’67, University of Virginia School of Medicine, has been a pioneer during her professional lifetime, in helping to close those gaps in medicine. When she enrolled at UVA School of Medicine, she was the only minority student and the only female student in her class. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in ’Brown vs Board of Education’, declaring that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, had been issued less than a decade before. Only two percent of U.S. physicians were African American. The number of female physicians was also minuscule.

Among the professional milestones achieved by Vivian were (1) the third female chair of a department of pathology in the United States (Howard University), and (2) the founding director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health, a position of leadership in which she performed admirably.

The nation’s medical education environment is now the proud home of (1) the Vivan Pinn Advisory Medical Student College here at UVA, (2) the Vivan W. Pinn Office of Student Affairs at Tufts University School of Medicine, (3) Vivan Pinn lectures at the National Institutes of Health, the Women’s Health Congress, the University of Virginia and the National Medical Association, and (4) the Pinn Scholars Program at UVA, which recognizes and supports mid-level faculty in their research development.

And now, today, I am pleased to join with all of you in the dedication of the Medical Education building in honor of Vivian Pinn. For, she has been an inspiring leader and role model for minority young people and for women, in their quest for careers and leadership opportunities in medicine and science.

Vivian W. Pinn, we salute you, we honor you and we thank you for your lifetime of leadership and service as a pioneer in medicine.”

Louis W. Sullivan, MD
U.S. Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, 1989-1993

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