Chief Medical Editor's Message:Women —Then and Now

09/04/2008

Y oung women dermatologists of today cannot really appreciate the older days of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), when it was essentially an academy of men, mirroring the rest of American medicine. Women were welcomed, but were on the fringes of things, including the scientific program; and from 1935 to 1970, only one woman had ever been elected to the AAD Board of Directors (June Carol Shafer, Washington, D.C, 1956-1958). In 1970 there were only 278 female dermatologists in the entire United States, comprising 6% to 9% of the 4,003 active dermatologists.1 Women attending the AAD meetings in the 1960s felt very conspicuous, sparsely sprinkled amid the tide of suits and ties pushing into the elevators and meeting rooms of the Palmer House in Chicago — where chivalry was dead. Joining Together Spotting other women became a game, and meeting them became a necessity. To the rescue in late 1960s came Dr. Minerva Buerk, a Main Line Philadelphia dermatologist. Soon after (1971) she became president of the American Medical Women’s Association (AWMA). She invited female dermatologists and residents for afternoon tea in her Palmer House suite, shared with her sister, Mrs. Ruby Sears, daughter-in-law of the founder of Sears & Roebuck Co. The teas became an annual event, giving a few dozen women a chance to communicate, socialize and develop lasting friendships. The teas evolved into luncheons in the early 1970s. The luncheon in 1973 was held in the vice presidential suite of Dr. Margaret Ann Storkan (Redondo Beach, CA), the first woman to become AAD vice president. A veteran of seven tours as dermatologist on the hospital ship, SS Hope, she was only the second woman to be elected to the AAD Board of Directors (1971-1973). By 1975, the elegant luncheon had outgrown the private suites and was held in the Vista Room of the San Francisco Hilton, sponsored by Westwood Laboratories. Despite some grumbling about women being under-represented in the annual AAD program, as well as in leadership positions, nothing came of it. In fact, women often declined to serve on committees, to the dismay of Dr. Walter Shelley when he served on the Nominating Committee and later (1972) as AAD president. In 1972, he strongly urged Dr. Miriam C. Reed (Princeton, NJ) to “organize” the women to help with the names for the Nominating Committee and develop networking and mutual support. This was not an easy task, since there was no computerized list of AAD women members and most knowledge about women members came either by word of mouth or had to be dug out of the AAD Directory. After studying some women’s organizations in other professional societies, Dr. Reed came up with three goals for the proposed organization: 1. Assist the AAD Nominating Committee with names of qualified and dependable women. 2. Support any qualified woman for office. 3. Make younger female dermatologists feel comfortable at meetings — and help them to get to know each other. The Founding of the WDS The first women’s caucus was held on Sunday, Dec. 5, 1976, at 6 P.M. in Chicago in conjunction with the AAD meeting. Approximately 30 to 40 female AAD fellows attended, though not all were supportive. Women who were already doing well in the AAD felt such an organization would be a mistake, likely to engender hostility among the men. Others, however, pointed out the need for professional female friends and mentors, as well as the need for support to get on the Annual AAD meeting program. The early Women’s Dermatologic Society (WDS) participants agreed to cultivate our image as a social organization to foster camaraderie among the few women who attended the AAD meetings. Dr. Wilma F. Bergfeld (Cleveland Clinic) became the first WDS president, and later the first female AAD president (1992). Together with Dr. Barbara H. Way (Lubbock, TX), the first WDS secretary, they set to work to developing a network of active women, with the ultimate goals of leadership, representation, networking and friendship. Has the WDS accomplished these goals? The WDS now has more than 1,000 members (women and men) and will hold its 30th Annual Luncheon in New Orleans in February 2005 at the next AAD meeting. The AAD has also had three female presidents, five female vice presidents, one female secretary/treasurer, and a respectable number of women members of the board of directors. Editors’ note: To find out more about the WDS and its past, present and future, read the accompanying supplement to this issue of Skin & Aging. In addition, Drs. Graham and Shelley are presently working on writing a book on the history of women in dermatology. Gloria F. Graham, M.D. and Dorinda E. Shelley