20 Years, 20 Leaders: Carol Cooperman Nadelson, MD


“Succeeding is establishing a foundation so other people can also succeed.”

Our connection to the experiences of those who came before helps to define the present and future of medicine. The Foundation is celebrating 20 years by joining in conversation with 20 women leaders in all aspects of medicine to understand their stories and how their experiences will shape the next generation.

Carol Cooperman Nadelson, MD, was appointed as the founding director of the Partners Office for Women’s Careers where she mentored women towards promotion and career development. She is currently a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a clinical supervisor in the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Here’s what we learned from Dr. Nadelson:

Why did you choose to go into medicine or your related field?

I entered medicine in the 1950s. What motivated me then might not currently motivate people. When I was about 10, my grandfather had lung cancer and I wanted to save him and save the world from cancer. But at that time going into medicine wasn’t what girls thought about nor were directed to. The choices were primarily in other directions, like elementary school teaching, nursing, or being a housewife.

What motivates you?

I want to help people define what they want to do and help them get there. 

How do you motivate others?

Currently, I teach and mentor psychiatry Residents who want to know what career options are available to them. I motivate them to participate actively in the field, assume leadership roles, and contribute to building what they really feel passionate about.

What challenges have you had to overcome?

When I was a pre-med student I was the only woman out of 200 students. Being a woman meant not being taken seriously and perhaps not being admitted to medical school despite ranking in the top students in my class and even having been elected the first woman president of the pre-med society. 

Humans fail. Please share a time when you failed and what you did next to move forward.

There were jobs I didn’t get and elections I lost. I had to and did accept the fact that being a woman meant that there was a strong likelihood that I wouldn’t get the job or win the election. But to move forward, I’d have to take another chance and risk. The American Psychiatric Association had never had a woman president. I was nominated to run as vice president. I lost the first time but won the second time. I didn’t put my head in the sand and say ‘this is over.’ I tried again.

Who was your most important mentor(s) and why?

My uncle, a lawyer, married another lawyer, so that was a first. She had been the first woman admitted to her law school. I had them supporting me, advocating for me in whatever I wanted to do. Along the way I also had a series of incredible male mentors who saw something in me and wanted to support and encourage me. This was invaluable.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

Get advice. Get support. And keep on going. I remember being pregnant when I was a resident. There were a few other women residents at the hospital. We were all pregnant. We had no available child care; there were no day care centers. We decided to start one. We met incredible opposition but we went ahead. I suddenly became the President of the child care center in Brookline, Massachusetts. It was the first in the area and it is still operating to this day. I learned that if you really want to do something, you work to do it and face the opposition.

How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?

How we define success evolves and changes with each phase of our lives. Succeeding is establishing a foundation so other people can also succeed.

What do you see in store for the future of medicine and related fields?

We are in a stage where medicine in the U.S. has become a business, not a humanitarian enterprise. Many doctors spend less time with patients, more with computers. This is not why we went into medicine. We committed ourselves to taking care of patients. Physicians are burning out rapidly; it is discussed frequently but as an individual problem. We must have a system that enables care to be provided for those who need it, that is delivered in a way that prevents burnout for providers.

What advice would you give to the next generation of women in medicine and the medical sciences?

Women have become the work horses of medicine, gravitating towards primary care, pediatrics and psychiatry, areas that pay the least. I would like to see more women in positions that influence policy, who can make a difference in the way physicians are valued, rewarded, and compensated.

The Backstory on Dr. Nadelson

Dr. Nadelson was formerly President of the American Psychiatric Association and Editor-in-Chief of the American Psychiatric Press.

She has received the Alma Dea Morani, M. D., Renaissance Woman Award, the Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Psychiatry from the American College of Psychiatrists, the APA's Seymour Vestermark Award for outstanding contributions to psychiatric education, the AMA's Sidney Cohen Award for outstanding contributions to the understanding of addiction, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award from the American Medical Women's Association for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Women in the Field of Medicine, the American College of Psychoanalysts' Laughlin Editorial Award, the American Psychoanalytic Association's Pioneers in Psychoanalysis of Women Award, the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society's Outstanding Psychiatrist Award for Lifetime Achievement, the MacDonald Hospital for Women Award in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions in Medicine, the AAMC Women in Medicine Leadership Development Award, the Alexandra Symond’s award from APA, recognizing outstanding contributions to women’s mental health, and the Boston YWCA Woman of Achievement award.