On Being a Human and a True Mover and Shaker


Colleagues yearn to be appreciated as individuals

Ellen R. Gritz, PhD, is a pioneering behavioral psychologist who specializes in smoking cessation, the psycho-social effects of cancer and preventing behaviors that contribute to cancer.

She grew up in a lower middle-class family in New York City. It was clear early on that she had the brains to succeed, graduating high school at 16 and moving on to Barnard College, where she studied psychology.

Her trailblazing research has helped to shape strategies in motivating cancer patients to quit smoking and increase their odds of survival.

She has had many mentors in her storied career. Two stand out because they showed her that she could be kind and nurturing and still stand up for herself.

Lester Breslow, M.D., and Helen Brown were co-directors of the Division of Cancer Control at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA when Dr. Gritz went to work there.

Brown was a leader in the American Cancer Society, “and a great community influence, an influence on national level, state, and city level, just a mover and a shaker,” she recalls. “But … clearly a feminine influence, one of the warmest, gentlest, loveliest people, but who could also stand up and pound a few if you needed to.”

Through her example, Dr. Gritz learned that colleagues yearn to be appreciated as individuals, not cogs in a machine.

“Helene taught me about the genuine importance of showing warmth and interest in the lives of your coworkers, in the lives of your staff, (and) in retaining those qualities of being a clinical psychologist and being a person that are so important in interpersonal relationships. Helene would stop at everybody’s office along the hall, just about every day, (and say) ‘Ellen, how are you today? Tell me what’s going on in your life.’”

When problems arose, Brown was there to sit with the staff, listen to their challenges and find collaborative solutions.

Dr. Breslow on the other hand encouraged her to surround herself with top talent.

“Lester was the great public health figure. He said to me, ‘Ellen I always hire people smarter than I am. And that shows well on me, and will build your organization,’” she says. “And that was absolutely right. So I always try to hire people smarter than I am.”

Dr. Gritz went on to succeed her mentors as director of the division. Today, she is professor and chair of the Department of Behavioral Science and Olla S. Stribling Distinguished Chair for Cancer Research at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Mentoring is a cherished part of her work.

“One of my joys as a department chair is to identify these incredibly bright and talented young scientists, often to mentor them through their PhDs, and then to help them into faculty positions, and now to watch them gain tenure, and to have full-fledged academic careers,” she says.

This story is taken from the oral history of Ellen R. Gritz, PhD. 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