Women Shaping History:
Dr. Kathryn Anderson:
First Woman President
of the American College of Surgeons
A striking photo of two hands clasped over a third graces the cover of a recent bulletin of The American College of Surgeons (ACS) which carries the presidential address of Kathryn Anderson, M.D., FACS, FRCS. The picture simply and elegantly suggests the quality of this premier organization’s 2006 advocate of “humanity,” Dr. Anderson, the College’s 86th president and its first woman to hold this prestigious position. Dr. Anderson, professor emeritus of the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California in Los Angeles and VP of Surgery and Surgeon-in-Chief of the Division of Pediatric Surgery at Childrens Hospital in LA, has a quiet, compassionate manner, not to mention subtle wit and charming British accent that reflect her Cambridge education. A Fellow of The College, a scientific and educational association of surgeons founded in 1913, Dr. Anderson oversees an organization of 64,000 Fellows, including 3,700 in other countries, the largest and most influential medical association of its kind (www.acs.org).
A pediatric surgeon specializing in esophageal replacement in infants and children, surgical implantation of gene-engineered hepatocytes and transplantation of vascular grafts, Dr. Anderson would be only too happy to translate these phrases. Indeed, she is a strong believer in communication with the public, in getting surgeons to forego jargon and renew the reasons that made them want to go into the medical profession. She is particularly proud of being a “visible” ACS president. Her election last year was hailed as a “groundbreaking achievement.” Despite numerous gains, she says, women still face an uphill battle for respect. She herself, despite an incredibly impressive record, had to fight to get people to take her seriously, in every rotation, every hospital, although—significant pause—she “never had to prove herself to patients, male or female.” Though it may sound cliché, she says, she believes that women bring “something different, a greater sense of community, sympathy, than men”, and she is proud to have overcome the odds when she went to university and then to medical school (Harvard) and then was asked to join prominent hospitals in Boston and Washington in leadership positions.
Whence the interest in medicine? A slow laugh. The prompt to be a doctor came by way of art! A loving aunt took young Kathryn and her sister to various cultural events, and in one gallery she found herself staring at a drawing of an English “theatre” (operating room). The picture was by Barbara Hepworth (d. 1975), a Henry Moore-influenced sculptor, and it obviously made a strong impression on the 7 or 8 year old. Perhaps it was that the time was shortly after the war and that Manchester had been so severely bombed, but Kathryn Anderson knew medicine was for her. She had discussed it often with her father, who, having expected perhaps to have a boy instead of an inquisitive young girl, encouraged her to think about career. Years later, when she met her husband “over a dead body” (in autopsy class) he, an American, studying medical research in the UK who would go on to be known as the “father of gene therapy” she found support. She would “put her head down and work” at being the best she could be. Professors, women and men in the UK and the US told her that she would have to make sacrifices, do more than men did, make hard decisions at crossroads. Conditions have eased since then, and prospective women doctors think a lot more now about “life style”—what branch of medicine will let them spend time with family—considerations that have created problems in some areas such as emergency surgery.
Dr. Anderson has already put in 50,000 miles of travel since her election to the ACS presidency, and she is determined that ACS be an effective “voice of surgery.” Two issues are paramount on her agenda: improving patient safety (no more sponges left inside bodies) and patients’ rights (ensuring informed consent). But most of all—she returns to her chosen ACS theme—she wants to address the “crisis in humanity.” Too many doctors, surgeons, are “disgruntled,” burnt out cases. ACS, which she describes as primarily an educational organization, can address and correct this medical illness by way of courses, lectures, online chat and perhaps most of all by heeding her words. Being president of ACS she says is a great “personal honor,” a landmark for the College, and a role model for women everywhere, a reminder that medicine is “the greatest humanitarian profession in the world.”#