The 6 Women Pioneers of Otolaryngology
January 25, 2024
In the dynamic realm of medicine, the field of otolaryngology, also known as ENT (ear, nose, and throat), has witnessed remarkable transformations over the years. Since the field’s emergence in the early 20th century, female physicians have played a pivotal role in its transformation.
The 6 pioneers of otolaryngology are women who devoted their practice to the care of otolaryngologic disorders in patients and mentored or trained other health care providers. The trials and tribulations of these physicians showcase their resilience, determination, and passion for making a difference in the lives of their patients, and the field of otolaryngology. We aim to celebrate the achievements of women in otolaryngology, highlighting their roles as surgeons, researchers, educators, and advocates. By doing so, we not only recognize the individual accomplishments but also contribute to fostering an inclusive environment within the medical community.
Dr. E. Maxine Bennet
Dr. E. Maxine Bennett served as an otolaryngologist and professor emeritus at the
University Medical School, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Graduating from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in 1942, she completed a seven-year otolaryngology internship in Madison. After passing her medical board exams in 1949, Dr. Bennett served as the medical director of the Bureau for Handicapped Children from 1950 to 1953. She then joined the University Medical School. The only woman in the department, she became chair of the Department of Surgery, Division of Otolaryngology in 1958. Dr. Bennett’s post-retirement contributions included leadership roles in the Wisconsin Otolaryngology Society and making history as the first woman elected to the Triological Society. (1)
Reflecting on her journey, Dr. Bennett said, “I had no one that I knew who was in the field of medicine. I never knew a woman physician other than when I went to medical school, so that there was no background for my choice of going.” (2) She received the Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association Emeritus Professor Faculty Award in 1988.
Joyce A. Schild, MD
Dr. Joyce A. Schild, born in 1931 in Chicago, made significant contributions throughout her distinguished surgical career. In 1961, she broke barriers by becoming the first female surgeon on the medical staff of Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Dr.
Schild’s collaborative efforts resulted in numerous scientific presentations, peer-reviewed research, and book chapters, totaling at least 39 publications. Joining the faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago Eye and Ear Infirmary in 1977, she became a respected Professor of Otolaryngology, leaving a lasting impact on medical education by training numerous resident physicians.
Her leadership extended to prestigious medical associations, including the American
Laryngological Association and the Triological Society. Notably, Dr. Schild was elected President of the American Broncho-Esophagological Association (ABEA) in 1979, becoming the second female surgeon to hold this position since 1924. Locally, she served as President of the Chicago Laryngological and Otological Society, showcasing her commitment to the community.(3)
Mary D. Lekas
Dr. Mary D. Lekas, originally from Worcester, MA, achieved significant milestones in her career as an otolaryngologist specializing in head and neck surgery. She obtained degrees from Clark University, Boston University, and the University of Athens Medical School. Dr. Lekas completed her residency training at Memorial Hospital in Worcester, Rhode Island Hospital, and the University of Pennsylvania. Notably, she made history as the first woman to lead the otolaryngology department at Rhode Island Hospital, serving as surgeon-in-chief from 1983 until her retirement in 1996. Affectionately known as “Dr. Mary,” she was a trailblazer, becoming the first woman on the East Coast to be a fellow in the Triological Society and the first woman elected president of the New England Otolaryngological Society.
Dr. Lekas received recognition for her contributions, being named Rhode Island’s Woman Physician of the Year and receiving the President’s citation from the Triological Society. Even after retirement, her achievements were celebrated by the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Foundation and the American Broncho-Esophagological Association. In 2007, she established The Mary D. Lekas Fund for the Advancement of Women in Medicine at The Warren Alpert Medical School, leaving a lasting legacy in supporting the progress of women in the field of medicine. (4)
Mary Ann Frable, MD
Dr. Frable earned her B.A. from Oberlin College in 1955 and her M.D. from Northwestern University Medical School in 1959. When describing her experience at Medical School, she said “we were really too busy to be doing anything else but study.”
Her career as an otolaryngologist included academic roles at institutions such as Cornell Medical School and Medical College of Virginia. She held various memberships and leadership positions in medical societies, including the American Academy of Otolaryngology.
With a passion for her community and philanthropy, Dr. Frable was actively involved in organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. She received prestigious honors, including the Ford Foundation Acceleration Scholarship and the Award of Merit from the American Academy of Otolaryngology. Her significant contributions extended to patient care, education, and leadership roles, notably serving as Chief of Staff at Richmond Eye and Ear Hospital.(5)
Joan T. Zajtchuk
In 1967, Dr. Zajtchuk achieved another milestone as the first female otolaryngology resident selected by Dr. John Lindsay, the chair of the Otolaryngology Section at the University of Chicago. Displaying her commitment to the field, she intervened during her third year of residency, personally meeting with the president of the University of Chicago to prevent potential harm to the institution’s esteemed otolaryngology program.
Stationed in Vietnam, Dr. Zajtchuk joined the Army to be stationed along with her husband. “A military career was unusual for a woman. Women doctors were not drafted, so I had to volunteer. This carried a mandatory two-year contract,” she said. “To my knowledge, I was the only woman surgeon in the Army during the war.” After returning home in 1972, she joined the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery (6).
LaVonne B. Bergstrom, MD
Dr. LaVonne Bernadene Bergstrom graduated as valedictorian in 1946 and went on to earn an MD from the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in 1953. Joining the University of Colorado in 1965 for her otolaryngology residency, she became a notable figure in the field. In 1975, she and Dr. Hemingway were recruited by Dr. Ward at UCLA, where she became a Professor in the Department of Surgery. She was committed to advancing in the field and was a part of the American Academy of Otolaryngology and the American Auditory Society, showcased her commitment to advancing the field.
In 1977, Dr. Bergstrom made history as the first female physician inducted to full membership in the American Otological Society. Her research, including the identification of the Rosenberg-Bergstrom syndrome in collaboration, earned her accolades (3)
- “Announcing the 2023 Hall of Distinction Inductees.” AAO-HNS Bulletin, 19 June 2023, bulletin.entnet.org/aaohns-programs/article/22862380/announcing-the-2023-hallof-distinction-inductees.
- Interview with E. Maxine Bennett University of Wisconsin-Madison Oral History Program Ann Peckham, Interviewer | 589 UW-Madison Campus Voices | Women in Science and Engineering.
- Women Surgeons Who Contributed to the Development of Pediatric Otolaryngology in the United States – Wiley Online Library, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/lary.30838. Accessed 19 Jan. 2024.
- “In Memoriam.” Medicine@Brown, Medicine@Brown, 19 Oct. 2023, medicine.at.brown.edu/article/in-memoriam-5/.
- “Obituary Information for Dr. Mary Ann Smith Frable.” Obituary Information For, www.blileys.com/obituaries/Dr-Mary-Ann-Smith-Frable?obId=10607580. Accessed 19 Jan. 2024.
- “Revolutionizing the Scope of Practice of Otolaryngology in Military Medicine.” AAO-HNS Bulletin, 1 May 2020, bulletin.entnet.org/home/article/21247857/revolutionizing-the-scope-of-practice-of -otolaryngology-in-military-medicine.