This profile is part of the story Women Unlimited: Closing the Gender Gap in Medicine and Science.
Ruth Lawrence was the first woman ever to be offered an internship in pediatrics at Yale University— but she wasn’t quick to accept, which prompted her summons to the office of George Hoyt Whipple, MD, founding dean of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. He was on the phone with the medical school dean at Yale.
Ruth recalls: “He was saying, ‘Hey look, George, we took a risk. We said we’d take a female and she hasn’t answered us.’ With Dr. Whipple looking down at me, I said, ‘Well, I’d love to come to New Haven.’”
That internship, followed by a residency also at Yale, exposed Ruth—who wore a white coat just like her male peers but was tasked with weaning her first child at 3 months to get back to work—to some of the greatest minds and practices in pediatrics. One of those practices was breastfeeding, common in New Haven even as physicians at the time, in the early ’50s, were urging patients to feed their babies formula.
Comfortable around breastfeeding because she’d seen her mother nurse her siblings, Lawrence dug into research in earnest once in her post-doctoral residency in pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, where, she says, “if a woman spoke up [for herself] she was apt to be punished for it.”
She wrote articles on the benefits of breastfeeding, and word spread. Soon she was being sought out by the wives of doctors who had read her work and wanted help breastfeeding their infants. Attention swelled, and Lawrence went on to become an international expert in the field of breastfeeding medicine. Her book, Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession, continues to be the preeminent reference for clinicians worldwide since its 1979 publication.
Meanwhile, the mother of nine managed responsibilities she knew the men in her life—at home and at work—did not have to consider.
“My husband used to say, ‘As long as the house is neat, the children are well dressed and in school and doing well, and dinner is on the table, you can do what you want,” she says, smiling about it now. “Erma Bombeck had a famous saying, ‘Don’t let them see you sweat.’ That’s what I felt.”
She had to put the kids to bed, so was unable to attend nightly club meetings with other pediatricians. And she was in charge of the university hospital nursery, a job her male colleagues did not want—but one that ultimately helped her pioneer neonatology as a specialty.
Over her seven decades of experience as a pediatrician, clinical toxicologist, and neonatologist—a storied career earning her two lifetime achievement awards— Lawrence has seen women go from “keeping our heads down” to being able to “speak up and challenge leadership.”
Given her achievements over the years, she recognizes she has had a role to play in that evolution—a role that led to her accepting the Charles Force Hutchison and Marjorie Smith Hutchison Medal, which recognizes alumni for outstanding achievement and notable service, earlier this year.
“I’ve never looked at myself as a disruptor,” she says, “but I hope I have helped a lot of women overcome whatever obstacles are in front of them.”