Stanford's medical alumni association honors Frances K. Conley and Augustus A. White III with the 2006 J.E. Wallace Sterling Award for Distinguished Alumni


Frances Conley: No pain, no gain

Riccardo Vecchio

Frances K. Conley, MD, could be described as a Stanford “native.” She literally grew up on campus, the daughter of a Stanford geology professor and a psychologist. As an adult, she spent decades here, breaking gender barriers and distinguishing herself as a top-notch surgeon. Conley was the first female resident in surgery at the medical school, the first woman nationwide to be appointed a full professor in neurosurgery and a catalyst for national change in gender discrimination.

Conley began at Stanford medical school in 1961, when few women studied medicine. Within five years, she was the school’s first female surgical resident. She soon jumped the gender gap again by specializing in neurosurgery, an almost exclusively male domain at the time. According to an article in the 1998 issue of Stanford Magazine, her husband, Phil, quipped at the time, “Why do you have to pick the goddamnedest most difficult thing you can think of?”

Conley had a knack for surgery. Emeritus professor Robert Chase, MD, head of the department during Conley’s residency and early years on the faculty, describes Conley as “an elegant neurosurgeon who did beautiful work.” Conley’s skill, coupled with her distinction as one of the first female neurosurgeons in the country, won her national renown, especially in the area of spinal reconstruction. Chase notes that Conley was also the quintessential doctors’ neurosurgeon. When physicians at Stanford needed back surgery, they went to Conley, says Chase.

Conley also excelled at research. Her work opened the chapter on brain tumor immunology, as it demonstrated how toxoplasmic infection can suppress the development of brain tumors. And in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when researchers nationwide wanted answers on toxoplasmosis, a common AIDS co-infection, they frequently turned to Conley.

Described by John Adler, MD, a longtime colleague, as a “fearless and moral person, with a fiery, charismatic personality,” Conley also proved a popular and successful teacher. “She went out of her way to champion the underdog,” he says. “Minority students, especially, gravitated toward her.” Adler recalls that over the years, Conley also mentored several struggling students and even invited them to her home to live for a while.

For 13 years, Conley served as an assistant and associate professor of neurosurgery at the medical school, then she surged across the invisible gender barrier again. In 1988, she became the first woman in the country to be awarded a full professorship in neurosurgery.

Three years later, she stunned the academic medical community by resigning in protest when colleague Gerald Silverberg, MD, was tapped to head the department of neurosurgery. Conley had found his attitude toward women discriminatory and patronizing over the many years they had worked together. By appointing Silverberg as department chair, “the dean was perpetuating a gender-insensitive atmosphere at a medical school that I cared about,” she says. Conley did not intend to start a revolution, she says, but her resignation provoked a burst of controversy at Stanford and medical schools nationwide. Within weeks, the dean retracted the appointment; three months later, Conley rescinded her resignation and came back. She not only remained but took on major administrative roles. She continued to serve as chief of neurosurgery at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System; and in 1997, she was appointed chief of staff.

According to some, Conley’s actions propelled the issue of gender discrimination to national prominence. Her 1998 book, Walking Out on the Boys, an instant best seller, was an eye-opener about sexism in medicine for many. Although Conley does not accept credit for the ripple effect, Chase believes that “she probably had more to do with changing the attitude toward gender in medicine than anyone else in the business.” Indeed, many trace the current emphasis on diversity training in the business world to Conley’s willingness to sacrifice her own career to expose gender inequities in the world of medical academia.

Conley retired in 2000. These days, she and her husband live by the ocean in Sonoma County, Calif., away from the demands of e-mail and other modern technology. Conley and her husband, a nationally ranked javelin thrower, describe themselves as “physical culturists,” meaning they spend a couple of hours a day doing rigorous exercise. “I swim, run with my dog and do a regular weight-lifting workout,” she says. “I also enjoy reading and am an absolute classical music fanatic.”

Conley doesn’t miss working in medicine. “I quit at the right time,” she says. “The amount of paperwork required now takes all the fun out of being a doctor.” Not everyone agrees. In Chase’s words, “She retired too early. We still miss her here.”

Augustus White: From bitter comes sweet

Riccardo Vecchio

Augustus A. White III, MD, PhD, has traveled a rough path to get to medicine’s pinnacle.

A renowned orthopedic surgeon and teacher who’s battled racism all his life, he’s earned the right to be arrogant.

But in reality, he’s quite the opposite.

Born in Memphis in 1936, White, an African-American, grew up attending excellent though racially segregated schools. Even as a kid, he wanted to be a doctor. For college he moved north to attend Brown University in Providence, R.I. There, he was a pre-med student and a football star. He became the first African-American member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity, and eventually the group’s president.

White collided with racism, though, when the fraternity’s leadership resisted his attendance at the national convention. Rather than admit an African-American as a delegate, the organizers cancelled the event.

At Stanford medical school, where he served as president of the student body, White continued breaking barriers. In 1961, he became the school’s first African-American graduate. In 1963, he became the first African-American surgical resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

White later served as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Vietnam, where he was awarded a Bronze Star for caring for patients in a leper colony and volunteering for a medical rescue mission on a mountainside in enemy territory. In the Army, too, he met racism. White medical officers were sometimes disinclined to follow his recommendations. “People were used to seeing black athletes then, but not professional colleagues. It was difficult for some of them to accept an egalitarian relationship with people of color,” says White.

After Vietnam, White attended the University of Gothenberg, in Sweden, where he studied with Carl Hirsch, MD, PhD, a pre-eminent orthopedic surgeon and researcher. White was particularly interested in the biomechanics of the spine — how the spine allows motion, absorbs loads and protects the spinal cord. To complement his medical knowledge, he teamed up with mechanical engineer Manohar Panjabi, PhD, of Chalmers University, the top engineering school in Sweden. In 1969, White was awarded a PhD for his research on the analysis of spinal motion.

When White returned to the United States, subsequently joined by Panjabi, they established a biomechanics laboratory at Yale. In 1978, the two published the first edition of The Clinical Biomechanics of the Spine, which has become the international definitive text for both spine surgeons and research clinicians. Five years later, White’s interest in the well-being of his patients prompted him to write a book for laymen, Your Aching Back: A Doctor’s Guide to Relief.

Following his work at the biomechanics lab at Yale, White founded Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s academic orthopedic program and that department’s biomechanics research laboratory. He served as orthopedic surgeon-in-chief, a post he held for 13 years at Harvard Medical School.

Throughout his career, White has advocated minorities’ advancement in the medical profession. He compares his evolving interest in issues of diversity to a Bach score. “There are variations on the same theme. Melodies are expressed in many different ways, and there are improvised variations, but the theme is recurrent. It shows up everywhere.” White traces the birth of his interest in promoting diversity to his early years in the segregated South, where his early teachers encouraged and expected their young students to contribute to progress in that realm. The fraternity incident and others like it propelled him further.

According to classmate spine specialist Donald Prolo, MD, White, “more than anyone else, has established the benchmark for making certain that minorities have the opportunity to develop their innate capacities in the medical field.” On a one-on-one level, White has made himself available as an advisor and mentor for minority students, and chairs Harvard Medical School’s culturally competent care education committee. He’s pushed for administrative change as well. When he chaired a committee of distinguished scholars to review diversity issues at Brown, 25 recommendations were made and nearly all were implemented, making Brown a leader in diversity, says White, who served on the school’s Board of Fellows.

Still on the job at Harvard, White conducts himself with such modesty and gentle grace, it’s easy to forget about his extraordinary accomplishments — and that he had to knock down barrier after barrier to realize his dreams.

What’s the secret to his amazing equanimity? Well, it’s really no secret at all, he says. For starters, he doesn’t see his career as one big struggle against racism. “Yes, I’ve won some struggles and I’ve lost some,” he says. “I’ve had tremendous help from stalwart allies, both black and white. And with or without the satisfaction of overcoming racism, I’ve enjoyed a gratifying career in patient care and biomedical science.”

Says White: “Respect all people, accentuate the positive and have fun. Those are the rules I live by. Like many other physicians, I’ve engaged in some wholesome professional competition and have been fortunate enough to be supported by world-class institutions and individuals. Let the record show that I am both happy for and appreciative of all these gifts.”

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