Mary Guinan, MD, PhD on Forging Her Own Path


She heeded her mother's advice and forged ahead until she at last found her niche in medicine

Eleven years before Mary Guinan, MD, PhD, was born, her parents met for the first time. It was the night before they immigrated to the United State from Ireland.

Although they did not know what the future held, their pioneering spirit and sense of self reliance would infuse their daughter’s career in public health and medicine.

Both came from farm families and their parents didn’t want to lose helping hands. Her father informed his mother that he was leaving in a telegram he sent just before he boarded the ship. Her mother’s family didn’t speak to her for months after she announced her intention to emigrate.

“Her mother made her promise that she would not get married and she would come back, and she made her kneel down and put her hand on the Bible and say that she would do that,” Dr. Guinan relates in an oral history preserved in the Countway Library at Harvard Medical School.

Mary was the middle of five children. Her mother worked, variously, as a seamstress, cook and lady’s maid. Her father worked in civil service in New York’s subway system. He died when Mary was a teenager and her mother got a job in a department store.

“When my father died, she said to the girls in the family, ‘Look, I married a wonderful man, but he died, and look at me. I have no skills. You need to be educated so you can get a job so that you can always stand on your own two feet. You don’t have to depend on someone else.’” 

Heeding Her Mother’s Advice

Inspired by her mother’s words, Dr. Guinan stuck with school. In 1961, she received her B.A. in chemistry from Hunter College of the City University of New York, a school she chose because the tuition was free. 

It was hard getting a job. “I’d have to call up and make an appointment, and some people would say, ‘We aren’t looking for women,’” she recalls. “But I would go and interview and they would say, ‘Well, we don’t want to really make an investment in you. You’re going to get married and you’re going to leave—so it’s not something we can do.’” 

Like her mother, she kept trying, determined to get ahead.

Finally, she got a job as a chemist in a chewing gum factory, where she soon discovered she was being paid less than her male colleagues.

Forging Ahead

In order to get a better job, she earned her PhD and then she set her sights high, taking flying lessons and applying to be an astronaut. No women were accepted into the program, so she changed gears again, applying for jobs at the National Institutes of Health, where she learned most jobs were reserved for applicants with MDs.

She was accepted to med school at Johns Hopkins, which reserved 10 percent of its slots for women. “I became part of the quota. Lucky me.”

In 1974, she joined the Centers for Disease Control’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, the only woman among 39 physicians. 

After a circuitous career path, she had at last found her niche. Dr. Guinan went on to work to eradicate small pox and was one of the first physicians to identify AIDS as an epidemic. In 2006, she received the Alma Dea Morani Renaissance Woman Award, the highest honor bestowed to pioneering women of science and medicine by the Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation.

Mary Guinan, MD, PhD is currently the Dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She has also served as the Executive Director of the Nevada Public Health Foundation.

This story is taken from the oral history of Mary Guinan. The full oral history is available here as part of the Foundation’s exhibit at the The Countway Library of Medicine, through our partnership with the The Archives for Women in Medicine.

Alicia Lazzaro