Staff StoryMar | 19 | 2019
Lynne Levitsky, MD
Why is Women’s History Month important to you?
Women’s History Month is important to me because it reminds me every year that we may “Hold up Half the Sky,” but as long as we need a month each year devoted to reminding ourselves and the other half of humanity of that fact, we have truly not achieved equality. When the need for this month fades away silently because it seems to make no sense, then women and men will be truly equal in work, academic and home lives.
What do you like most about your job?
I now have the freedom to provide excellent clinical care and continue collaborative translational, or clinical, research on a national level without many administrative responsibilities.
How can we encourage more women and girls to enter the sciences?
Half of the medical students in this country are women. However, the hard sciences and medical academics still present obstacles that need to be dealt with both early and late by mentors and role models from the earliest grade. This means no more talking dolls or saying “I hate math” and greater encouragement to enroll in hard sciences at the pre-college level.
What contributions have women made in the field of medicine that have influenced your role or specialty?
I am a pediatrician because I love it, but perhaps by default because it was the easiest path for a woman in academics when I was starting out. From the earliest times in my specialties, women have made major contributions, from the APGAR score (a measure of a newborn’s physical condition), developed by Virginia Apgar, to the development of the immunoassay by Rosalind Yalow, which is an approach to measuring hormones and other substances that revolutionized endocrinology and many other fields of medicine. The list is too large to enumerate.
Have you encountered any obstacles on your journey as a woman? If so, how did you overcome them?
I got my first credit card with my own name on it only after the state I was living in at the time approved a new constitution with its version of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) embedded within it, but did not approve the national ERA.
For other challenges, I got a raise in my first academic position when a woman in the surgery department at another hospital sued for equal pay and won. My chairman at the time apologized and said he was glad he was now given the money to pay me more.
When I moved to Boston as a trailing spouse, I was not initially treated well by the Harvard powers, but I played their game of poker and came out ahead. We should all remember that Harvard was one of the last medical schools in the country to admit women.
When women complained many years ago that they made up more than one-third of the Endocrine Society membership but were not important in the organization, even as presentation chairs at meetings, the male president of the society that year responded by asking each man who had been chosen to chair to bring along a woman to the next meeting. I was asked to come along by my old fellowship mentor, not realizing that the invitation was some kind of placation to women. I was not the only one. This lead to a revolt within the organization by more established women physicians and scientists than I, and ultimately the use of a strong voting block made that organization almost totally egalitarian, as it is now.
By the time I served as president of my national specialty organization, the Pediatric Endocrine Society, many women had preceded me. This was just not an issue. I suppose having a fairly aggressive and unflappable sense of humor and a hard-to-silence voice largely kept at bay most of the other issues that are being named loudly these days.
What is one piece of advice you would give a woman entering the field of medicine and/or healthcare?
Choose your spouse carefully for having similar values and the ability to load a dishwasher. Trust yourself, speak up, collaborate and don’t let your children join traveling teams.
Has there been an influential woman in your life who supported or inspired you on your journey into health care/medicine?
I come from a long line of female family members with independent work lives and a sense of empowerment. My maternal aunt (my mother’s twin sister) was the first woman graduate meteorologist in the United States during World War II and, by family lore, the first to get her picture and story in Life magazine. She retreated to home and children when she and other women were told to give returning men their jobs after the war. Lovely lady, but she taught me what not to do!
Describe your journey into health care.
My journey was a short one. I made that decision at age 5 and started dissecting my dolls about then. My father was a physician with academic instincts, and he had three daughters – two of them went into medicine and the third went into human resources. We were excited by his enthusiasm and stories over the dinner table. It was an easy decision that barely changed from the earliest age, aside from a brief flirtation with basic nonmedical science in college (a women’s college chosen because of its record of producing graduates who went to medical school).
What makes Mass General for Children special?
Mass General for Children is an impressive -academic hospital with a history of providing cutting-edge personal care. It is a very collegial institution, which is important given its size. I am proud to have watched the Pediatrics department exponentially grow into a clinical and academic powerhouse over the years I have been in Boston.