By H. Franklin Bunn, MD
Dr. Bunn is Professor, Department of Medicine, at Harvard Medical
School, and Staff Physician, Division of Hematology, at Brigham and
A recent portrait of Dr. Ranney.
Dr. Helen Ranney is among the most distinguished
physician-scientists in academic medicine. She was the first female
chairperson of a department of medicine in the United States and the
first female president of both the Association of American Physicians
and the American Society of Hematology. She is also a member of the
National Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Ranney was born and raised on a dairy farm in New York and, in
her view, benefited greatly by early education in a one-room
schoolhouse. Her upbringing imbued her with a strong sense of
responsibility and the importance of working with her own two hands,
qualities which were key determinants of her later success in research.
To fully appreciate Dr. Ranney’s career, one must not only focus on
her impressive accomplishments but also look at the obstacles she
overcame. After graduating from Barnard College, the women’s affiliate
of Columbia University, Dr. Ranney hoped to enter Columbia’s College of
Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) but found that gender bias made
access difficult. She bided her time working in a research laboratory
until the United States’ entrance into World War II suddenly brought
openings at P&S for qualified women applicants. The director of the
research laboratory, Dr. Donovan McCune, not only inspired Dr. Ranney’s
lasting interest in medical research, but strongly supported her
application for admission to P&S where she completed her medical
school and residency training. Influenced in part by a strong
biochemistry department that included a cadre of brilliant biochemists
who had fled Europe to work at Columbia, she became enamored with this
discipline. Her early scientific development was also fostered by
interactions with Drs. David Rittenberg, Salome Waelsch (mouse
geneticist), Reinhold and Ruth Benesch, Irving London, Ernst Jaffé and,
later, Paul Gallop.
Dr. Ranney stands with Dr. Oscar Ratnoff to her left
and Dr. Samuel Rapaport to her right.
In 1953, Dr. Ranney began to work on hemoglobin in what was to be a
career-long inquiry. Most of her research was done single-handedly or
with the help of only a lab assistant or post-doctoral fellow. She
showed that the isolated α and ß subunits of hemoglobin had high
affinity for oxygen and lacked cooperativity, thus differing markedly
from native tetrameric human hemoglobin. A few years earlier, Drs.
Harvey Itano and Linus Pauling reported the separation of normal and
sickle hemoglobin by the cumbersome technique of moving boundary
electrophoresis. Dr. Ranney was the first to apply the much more
practical and accessible technique of paper electrophoresis to the
separation of human hemoglobins. Synergy between her biochemical
expertise and her clinical acumen enabled her to identify both common
and rare hemoglobin variants and establish the genetic basis for their
inheritance. She was the first to show that Hb S and Hb C are allelic,
thereby elucidating the inheritance pattern of hemoglobin SC disease.
In those days, physiology trumped biochemistry as the fashionable
discipline for clinical investigators. Despite a remarkable record of
research contributions early in her career, this mind-set and perhaps
her gender delayed Dr. Ranney’s entry into the American Society for
Clinical Investigation. Nevertheless, when finally admitted, she was
still among the first women to receive this accolade.
In 1960, Dr. Ranney moved from Columbia to the newly developing
Albert Einstein College of Medicine where she founded a
cross-disciplinary heredity clinic. She oversaw the training of an
outstanding group of academic hematologists, including Drs. Robert
Bookchin and Ronald Nagel, who have remained at Einstein and made
landmark contributions in sickle cell disease. With Dr. Sam Rahbar, she
demonstrated the utility of Hb AIc for monitoring patients with
diabetes, and over a 20-year period she explored the interactions of
hemoglobin with the inner surface of the red cell membrane.
While continuing her research, Dr. Ranney continues to be a highly
respected and revered clinician and teacher. Her prowess and comfort in
all three components of medical academe made her a compelling choice to
assume the chair of the Department of Medicine at University of
California, San Diego, for 13 years. Throughout this time and up to the
present, she has placed a high premium on nurturing the careers of
deserving junior colleagues.
pause for a photo at the 25th annual meeting. In the
back, from left to right, are Drs. C. Lockard Conley,
Ernest Beutler, and Ernst Jaffé. In front, from left to
right, are Drs. John Harris, Helen Ranney, and Samuel
Dr. Ranney’s impact on academic medicine and hematology rests in no
small part on the force of her personality. She is widely known for her
uncanny ability to size up people and to trouble-shoot complex
interpersonal and institutional problems. She is well known for her
acerbic wit and disarming candor. Like Bernard Shaw, she jests in
earnest. She once famously described a distinguished but rather pompous
senior professor as "all that oil but no machinery." She expressed
concern that a hyperambitious junior colleague was "overselling his
goods." Her magnetism is based on a no-nonsense style and avoidance of
self-promotion. Once at a Plenary Session at an ASH annual meeting, her
chair slipped and she fell over the back of the platform. Those of us
who were in the audience remember our collective sense of relief when
we saw her hand rise above the platform with a "V" for victory sign.
She attributes her subsequent success as ASH President to widespread
sympathy from the large audience. Dr. Ranney is refreshingly modest
about her research accomplishments, pointing out that "if we hadn’t
done it, it would have been done some years later by someone else.
We’re not Bach, who, had he not lived, the music would never have been
An exemplar of the physician-scientist, Dr. Ranney has achieved
iconic status as a role model for medical academicians in general and
for hematologists and women in particular.
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