Florence Haseltine, PhD, MD: On the Move

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‘I am one of those people who likes to get up and have something to do.’

As a founding member of the Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation, Florence Haseltine, Ph.D., M.D., is intent on preserving an important part of the past.

She also has earned her place in history as a doctor, biophysicist, reproductive endocrinologist, journal editor, novelist and inventor. From 1985 to 2012, she was director of the Center for Population Research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.

At 74, she is retired—but far from retiring.

“I’m in the middle sorting the data and documents in the organization I founded, the Society for the Advancement of Women’s Health Research, making sure everyone who needs the data has access to it,” she says. “It’s not terribly exciting but absolutely necessary. My mother used to say never be too proud to clean the toilet.”

A longtime advocate for women’s health, she believes the greatest issue facing women today is longevity. In short, women’s life spans are expanding but the quality of life in those final years is not.

“Living a pleasant life and then dropping dead is not an option for most people,” she says. “The biggest problem we face is longevity and everything that goes along with it, especially loneliness and dementia.”

Florence Pat Haseltine was born in 1942 and grew up in California to a family of scientists. As a girl, she dreamed of being an astronaut. She studied physics at University of California at Berkeley and earned her Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She was frustrated at both schools because of gender bias against women. She also was severely dyslexic “and so I had to learn differently.” Because she had difficulty with the written word, she relied on the spoken word.

“I only missed one class in college, a math class, because I had the flu and couldn’t get out of bed,” she recalls. “There is always a different way to do something.”

The environment was more supportive at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where she earned her M.D. in 1972.

Still, there was a limited legacy at the time for women in medicine. In 1977, she participated in an oral history at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, now at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Preserving that history is an important part of the foundation’s mission.

“Elizabeth Blackwell was well recorded but there was not much on other women,” Dr. Haseltine recalls. “Finding out how people lived their lives and how change occurred is considered important by historians and I take their word for it. We now have records of women in medicine that provide a record of how their careers developed.”

Young women in medical do not face the level of gender bias that Dr. Haseltine and her contemporaries struggled against. She views the rising cost of a medical education as the greatest challenge today.

“Young people have a whole new set of problems, including debt,” she says. “The biggest problem a young doctor faces is what am I going to do to survive?”

“With our aging population we need more geriatricians, yet it’s one of the lower-paid specialties,” she says. “I have to wonder about the impact debt and finances is having on the choices physicians make in their careers.”

Women today need mentoring and pragmatics insights on navigating their careers.

Dr. Haseltine remembers a difficult boss who nitpicked her work. Colleagues chaffed at his behavior. But she resolved to embrace it.

“One of the ways to manage a micromanager is to let him do your work,” she says. “Whatever I edited he was going to reedit, so why bother? It saved me a lot of time that I could devote to work that truly interested me.”

Throughout the years, that has included becoming founding editor for the Journal of Women’s Health. She has invented numerous apps and started a business to manufacture containers to protect wheelchairs. She is the 2013 Alma Dea Morani Renaissance Award recipient, awarded annually by the Foundation.

Retirement gives her the time to pursue whatever captivates her active mind. She recently returned from a trip to the Galapagos Islands. It is far off the beaten path, a place she naturally gravitates to.

“You walk around on old lava beds and see unbelievable animals you would never see anywhere else, absolutely beautiful birds and lizards you can’t see until you are very close to them because they are the same color as the lava,” she says. “I am one of those people who likes to get up and have something to do.”

Alicia Lazzaro