A women’s health pioneer, Dr. Vivian Pinn served as the founding director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We spoke briefly before her remarks at President’s Paula Johnson’s Inauguration. After graduating from Wellesley in 1962, Dr. Pinn attended the University of Virginia School of Medicine, where she was the only female and only AfricanAmerican in the graduating class of 1967. She subsequently studied kidney diseases at the Massachusetts General Hospital, joined the faculty at Tufts University School of Medicine in 1970 and then chaired the pathology department at Howard University in 1982. In 1991, Dr. Pinn joined NIH as a director and focused specifically on encouraging women to pursue scientific fields and careers. Dr. Pinn is a member of the National Medical Association, of which she was president from 1989 to 1990, and a member of the American Medical Association. She won the Howard University Women in Medicine Woman of the Year Award in 1999 and she received a Distinguished Alumna Award from the University of Virginia.[This interview has been edited for clarity and length].
Q: What is your relationship to President Johnson?
A: I have known Dr. Johnson since she was a medical student, and I have watched her mature from a young student, physician and teacher to where she is now. Obviously, I am extremely proud and very excited that she is the new president of Wellesley.
Q: Why do you believe President Johnson will be a good President for Wellesley?
A: What impressed me years ago about Paula was her interest not so much about what we might be able to do for her, but what she could, and what we could do to help her, do for the faculty and students. I know how dedicated she is not only to science, but, more appropriately for Wellesley, [to] her interest in supporting those she oversees: young students, girls, women, and even older women. She serves as a mentor and really has helped advance their careers.
Thinking about all that and how that translates to being president of a liberal arts college, I think it’s a natural progression. To be in medicine, you have to be compassionate and humanistic. When I think back to when I was a student at Wellesley, I wanted to feel that someone cared about my progress and my ability to reach my dreams. Humanism and compassion in medicine translates well into leading an academic institution. Medicine is also a life-long study, and at Wellesley, we are also trying to encourage going after the facts and to update knowledge, and to take this education just as a foundation.
The leader of the institution should instil and require those qualities of those who are in the administration, faculty, and staff and adjust the environment to ensure that each student feels special and a part of the diversity of the College. Paula has addressed diversity and ensured it’s appreciated in medical design; and here we are talking about academic design. Some may question: Why a physician as a president as a liberal arts college? But to me Paula can easily transfer those talents, skills and wisdom that she has evidenced so well in the field of medicine and science into the broader of the community. And she is well-rounded.
Q: How do you see Dr. Johnson as a role model for Wellesley students?
A: As busy as she is, she always meets her obligations. She also devoted time to taking care of her family, [contrary] to what many have objected to over the years — that you can’t be a good wife, mother and still have a profession. She is a good example of having done both. She is an excellent role model showing that you can be a top-notch profession and have a family. The question of if you can manage both still comes up among students with whom I speak. This is true for most male-dominated fields. Paula has handled the dual responsibilities of life — family and profession— with what looks like ease, and I think that makes her good role model for Wellesley.
Q: How has being a woman changed since being in college?
A: Well, for some of us, we have always had the feeling that being a woman was a good thing, but the world hasn’t always felt that way. Perhaps, the world has learned better to accept women as accomplished individuals — as a housewife or President of a college or author or social scientist. I believe that because women have been able to do so much, young women can have a greater sense of security in pursuing their dreams. I can’t say the road is completely easy, but when I compare what I went through as a woman in medicine to what you’re faced with today, the challenges aren’t the same. But I also can’t discount the challenges of today. Women’s abilities to do whatever they set out to do are much more appreciated today than before. The road is not as rough, but there are still challenges. Women have more confidence in being able to go after their life’s works.
Q: What piece of advice would you give today to your college self?
A: Know that it’s important to stick with what you want to do and not let people discourage you. What I like to say is to exceed barriers and overcome expectations of people who don’t believe in you. Many thought I would never make it into medicine, and look, here I am with a career of 50 years behind me. Many thought that an African American from the segregated South wouldn’t be able to finish Wellesley, and I did graduate, and now, I am back. I can remember people used to ask my father why he had a Wellesley sticker on the back of his car because they wouldn’t believe he would know anyone at Wellesley.
For young women in college, my advice is to have a mentor to help you negotiate the system that you are dealing with and, more importantly, to be a mentor and provide that support. And finally reach for your dreams. I would have never imagined that I would get the awards, recognition, to formulate an office at the national level, to deal with women’s health. I just learned that the University of Virginia is going to rename a building after me, and I think I am more speechless than anyone about that.
Reach for your dreams and if you don’t reach high, you’ll never know if you’ll get there and you won’t. Take opportunities when they come. My life and career have all evolved because of opportunities I didn’t expect — weigh them carefully, but take advantage of them. Be experimental. Try something different because if you have confidence in yourself and have that feeling that you have the abilities to do something new, then why not create a new field? Why not go and pursue your dreams? If you don’t reach for the stars, you’ll be stuck in the mud, and that’s the most important lesson. There were those who encouraged me to do that when I was young. Thank goodness that people gave me that advice and I think that’s the best advice for those people coming behind me.