Paula Johnson, MD, MPH Named 17th Annual Alma Dea Morani MD Renaissance Woman Awardee

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Prestigious award honors history-making women in medicine and science

Each year, an elite group dedicated to preserving the legacy of women in medicine honors a contemporary pioneer who embodies the spirit of Alma Dea Morani, M.D., the first woman admitted to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons and an advocate for humanism in medicine.

The 2016 honoree is Paula Johnson, M.D., MPH, recently appointed president of Wellesley College and a noted proponent of sex-specific research and clinical trials.

“This is a very special sisterhood,” said Julia Haller, M.D., president of the Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine. “We break down barriers; we also bring people together.”

The Alma Dea Morani. M.D., Renaissance Woman Award was established to recognize an outstanding woman in medicine or science who has demonstrated professional excellence and a thirst for knowledge and service beyond her medical practice or scientific endeavors. The Foundation, now known as the Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation, dedicates itself to preserving and promoting the history of women in medicine and the medical sciences.

Dr. Johnson is a trailblazer in pressing for studies and treatment that reflect gender differences. She spoke on “Advancing the Health of Women Across a Lifetime” in accepting her award on November 3 at the Lotos Club.

“Every cell has a sex and there are sex differences seen across every organ system,” she said. “When we fail to routinely consider the impact of sex and gender in research, we are leaving health to chance.”

Dr. Johnson noted that women have gender-specific risks for such illnesses as heart disease, depression and Alzheimer’s. They have a much higher risk for lung cancer than men if they have had pneumonia or have a first-degree relative with early lung cancer.

“But how many of you have had your primary care doctor ask you those questions?” she asked.

The award itself is a statue in the shape of Morani’s hand, designed by Wilma Bulkin Siegel, M.D., immediate past president of the Foundation. Dr. Siegel, an oncologist and artist, was mentored by Morani and said the image of the hand was meant to represent humanism in medicine.

That value is shared by Dr. Johnson, who said, “We can’t lose sight of the humanities. Science tells us how; the humanities tell us why.”

After the award presentation, Dr. Johnson and other women in medicine discussed their challenges, as well as accomplishments that were easier to achieve than they expected. The conversation was moderated by Carolyn Britton, M.D., MS, a Foundation board member.

Dr. Johnson said she benefited from being asked to join the Board of Planned Parenthood while she was still a cardiology fellow.

“That gave me experience in fundraising and crisis management,” she said. “If I didn’t have that experience it would have been so much harder to achieve the professional roles that were to come.”

Dr. Siegel said embracing the confidence her mentors showed in her was a career- and life-changing moment.

“They told me, ‘you are going to be a leader,’” she recalled.

Florence Haseltine, PhD, M.D., said she learned to change obstacles into advantages.

“If you can’t read you learn to ask questions differently,” she said. “You aren’t afraid to ask questions. And you never miss a class.”

Dr. Johnson said the foundation plays an essential role in preserving the history of women in medicine so their legacy will inspire, uplift and inform future generations.

“Who writes your story matters,” she said.

Katie Burkhart