Taking a Calm and Informal Approach to Leadership


‘You have to go on, do your job and not be rattled’

Louise Schnaufer, MD, was a pioneering surgeon, internationally known for pediatric surgery and her work separating conjoined twins.

She also earned a reputation as a leader and mentor who brought people together.

Dr. Schnaufer spent most of her career at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she began her work in 1971 as chief surgical assistant for C. Everett Koop, M.D. She saw patients until she retired in 2002 at age 77. She died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2011.

She grew up over her parent’s store outside Baltimore. She went to Wellesley College, earning a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1947. There were three pre-med students in her class, which sparked a revelation in young Louise.

“I had always been interested in science as a child and in high school in the early 1940s, but I had never known that women could become doctors,” she recalled in an interview with the National Library of Medicine.

A Fellow’s Perspective

In 2007, Dr. Schnaufer was too frail to be interviewed for an oral history project initiated by the Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine, now the Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation. Instead, her colleagues and fellows she taught were interviewed, providing a fresh perspective on her leadership.

Lesli Ann Taylor, M.D., who became chief of pediatric surgery at East Tennessee State University, began her fellowship at CHOP in 1988. She remembered Dr. Schnaufer as a tiny woman, who was long on confidence.

One day, when Dr. Taylor and Dr. Schnaufer were working in an X-ray room, a plastic surgeon popped his head in the door. “Oh, Louise, you don’t need to worry about your ovaries,” he said, referring to the lead apron that protects against radiation exposure.

Dr. Taylor was startled by the remark. Dr. Schnaufer ignored it and continued to care for the patient.

“She didn’t try to say anything back at him but on the other hand she didn’t get rattled,” she recalled. “So it was an example to me of how a woman can be just trying to go about the business of her profession yet ...you have to go on and do your job and not be rattled by that sort of event.”

A Low-Key Leader

Dr. Schnaufer took a low-key approach to leadership, keeping bags of peanuts in her desk drawer for other doctors who stopped by to chat. It paid off, as attending physicians gravitated to her office, eating peanuts and seeking her guidance.

“It was her way of saying, ‘my office is open, my mind is open to you,’” Dr. Taylor said. “Let’s just talk about this patient together in an informal way.”

Dr. Schnaufer received the residents’ faculty teaching award from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993. In 1995, she created the Louise Schnaufer Endowed Fellowship in Pediatric Surgery at CHOP. The American Academy of Pediatrics presented her with the Arnold M. Salzberg Award in 1999 in recognition of her outstanding mentorship of pediatric surgical trainees.

This story is taken from the oral history of Dr. Louise Schnaufer. 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