Recently Insidesurgery.com sat down for an indepth interview with pioneering surgeon Dr. Carol Scott-Conner
Carol Scott-Conner, MD, PhD, MBA
You have the distinction of being one of the few women Chairs of surgery in the history of academic medicine. When you took your position back in 1995 at the University of Iowa were there any other women Chairs?
I was the second woman to be appointed Chair. Olga Jonasson was the first, but was working for the American College of Surgeons by the time I was appointed. Shortly after me, Dr Nancy Ascher was appointed Chair at UCSF and then Julie Freischlag was appointed Chair at Hopkins .
You have been a pioneer long before you entered surgery. What was it like studying electrical engineering at MIT in the 1960’s?
I was one of about 35 women in a class of 900. Tech students are a unique breed, and everyone seemed pretty genderless. I was admitted to MIT after my junior year in high school and struggled for a quite a time to keep up with my classmates. I had intended to go to medical school after MIT, and chose EE because #1 my father (a physicist) said that doctors would need to understand equipment and #2 I was interested in the nervous system – all the neurophysiology was being done in EE dept at that time (brain as computer, etc).
At MIT I fell in love for the first time and married a classmate, Christopher Scott. He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war and did his alternative service (after graduation) at Massachusetts General Hospital working on their cyclotron (for one of the first PET scanners). Because of this geographic limitation, I applied only to med schools in Massachusetts. At that time, there were only three – Harvard, Boston University, and Tufts – and I was not admitted. Discrimination on the basis of gender was accepted, and it was not uncommon to be asked “why should we accept you – a woman – to take the place that a man might take? If the man does not get into medical school, he will be drafted to Vietnam and might come home in a body bag.” I got a job as an engineer and then was laid off during a regional recession in 1971. Shortly after I was laid off, Chris died suddenly of a stroke. We had been married just over four years and he was in his early 20’s, healthy as far as we knew.
I made up my mind to go to medical school, applied all over the East Coast, and was accepted at New York University.
How did you like being a medical student at New York University?
At NYU, I fell in love with a classmate, Harry Conner. Harry and I were married between second and third year. I was no longer interested in neuroscience, was almost phobic about it, so thought I might be a cardiologist. I did my first third-year rotation on the general surgery service at Bellevue and I loved it. My second rotation was on internal medicine, also at Bellevue. I remember a four-bed unit with four women in it – a woman totally immobile from Parkinson’s disease, a woman deeply jaundiced from end-stage liver disease (pre liver transplant era), a woman with lumps all over her body from metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, and a fourth woman with congestive heart failure.
The lack of effective treatments for most of the patients I saw and the generally negative attitude of the medical house staff (“I’m not up for the next admission, YOU are!” “No, YOU are!!!” squabbles contrasted with the surgeons who hung out in the ER and vaulted (literally) over the counter when a trauma came in. They walked across the roofs of the old Bellevue to make rounds as the sun was rising over the East River, and they loved to operate – they really were larger than life). I was hooked. Harry stood behind me; very few others did.
In fact, there were all sorts of nasty rumors that I had no way of corroborating. “You know, you won’t be able to be a FELLOW of the American College of Surgeons”. I was introduced to the only woman on the faculty at NYU, a volunteer faculty member in private practice. I wanted to be an academic surgeon.
Did you focus on developing mentors in your rise through the surgery profession and if so, who helped you?
During residency, John Ranson and Frank Spencer. Since then, I have been blessed – every step of the way there has been someone – too many to name. My first female mentor was Dr Betty Sisken, my PhD thesis advisor at the University of Kentucky. At my first academic job, Dr Robert Bradley and Dr Kenneth Sher mentored me. In Mississippi, Dr James Hardy and Dr Robert Rhodes.
In some ways, my husband of 32 years, Dr Harry Conner, has always been my best friend and constant mentor.
What advice would you give to medical students thinking about entering surgery today?
If you love it, go for it. I believe it offers the best job security we currently have. Primary care can and is done by physician extenders. Surgery is not. General surgery allows you to tailor your practice to the needs of the times and the community, ensuring you are always needed.
What do you think was your biggest accomplishment as Chair of Surgery at Iowa?
Establishing the University of Iowa as a Level I Trauma center.
What was your biggest failure?
I had a lot. Toward the end, my biggest failure was loss of rapport with the dean and hospital CEO.
You are an extremely accomplished author. Did you enjoy writing your surgical textbooks?
Are you writing anything now – either in the profession or otherwise – and what are your future plans for your writing career?
I am finishing the third volume in the SAGES Manual series, starting the third edition of Operative Anatomy (my first book), and signing a contract for a breast surgery text. I have finished a novel, am working on the second novel, and writing short stories (two have been published and a third is in press). I plan to do creative writing when I finish practice.
You must be one of the only women in the country with MD, PhD and MBA degrees. What led you to pursue those degrees and are you planning on any further formal academic training?
I needed additional research training – hence the PhD. And when I started interviewing for chair jobs, it was clear that I needed the additional credentials and edge of the MBA degree. In both cases, I worked full time while pursuing the degrees. I was privileged to have a situation where this could be done in terms of supportive leadership and supportive degree programs.
What was your favorite operation to perform?
It’s a dodo – highly selective vagotomy, or maybe vagotomy and antrectomy with BII (Billroth 2).
If you had your career to do over again, what would you do differently.
Copyright 2006 Insidesurgery.com
Fascinating. This wasn’t selected for GR, but thanks to the link, I got here and enjoyed the interview immensely. She truly is a remarkable woman. Thanks for the inspiring interview.