Vivian Pinn Biography
Medical doctor, administrator, pathologist
From a very young age, Vivian Pinn felt herself to be a person with a mission. Having seen pain and illness in the family members she loved, she developed a drive to ease suffering and to cure disease. At the age of four, she announced her intention to become a doctor, an almost unheard-of ambition for a black girl in the United States of the 1940s. By the time she reached college, her mission had broadened. Pinn not only wanted to treat the ill, but to make sure that all patients were taken seriously and treated with respect by those entrusted with their health care. Throughout her career, whether as a doctor, a teacher, or the director of an office of a major government agency, she has remained true to the goals she set in her youth and added another: to help and encourage other young African Americans and women to pursue careers in medicine.
Pinn was born in Halifax County, Virginia, close to the North Carolina border. Her mother, Francena Evans, was a high school home economics teacher, and her father, Carl Francis Pinn, taught physical education. They had met and fallen in love while teaching at the same Halifax County school. However, school rules did not allow married couples to teach at the same school, so Carl Pinn took a job in his hometown, Lynchburg, about 50 miles away. Young Vivian's childhood was divided between her parents' home in Lynchburg and her grandparents' farm in rural Halifax County.
Growing up in this warm extended family, she developed close relationships with her parents and grandparents. Her grandfather had cancer, and her grandmother had diabetes, and these diseases became a part of young Vivian's childhood experience. Her father showed her how to help care for her grandparents, even teaching her to give injections of medication and insulin. From these early experiences with disease and the death of her grandfather, Pinn developed an interest in science and the desire to help the sick. Her family's support and belief in education gave her the assurance that she could achieve her goals.
Education had become a tradition in the Pinn family. Unlike many African Americans of the time, both of Vivian Pinn's parents had graduated from college, and even one of her grandfathers had completed his studies at Hampton Institute in 1901. Her family also included another side of the black American experience: her other grandfather had quit school in seventh grade to support his brothers and sisters by working as a carpenter. Pinn learned to value both of her grandfathers' achievements as the products of hard work and dedication. Her chosen career would require both manual skill and academic excellence.
When Pinn announced to her family at the age of four that she wanted to become a pediatrician, or children's doctor, her parents did not point out that there were very few black women doctors. They merely told her that she would have to work hard in school to become a doctor.
Pinn did work hard in school. After graduating from Lynchburg's Dunbar High School in 1958 as valedictorian of her class, she attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, one of the most distinguished women's colleges in the United States. One of only four black women in her class at Wellesley, Pinn had left the segregated South to come North, where she had to negotiate a less familiar series of racial lines and barriers. With so few African American students in her class, she grew to depend on the black Greek system for support. College fraternities and sororities are named for letters of the Greek alphabet, and so are sometimes called "Greek." The black Greek system is a national network of nine black fraternities and sororities, which provide friendship and support for African American students. Pinn joined Delta Sigma Theta and attended many social events with other African American college and university students in the region.
In 1960, Francena Pinn became seriously ill. Pinn took time away from her studies at Wellesley to care for her mother, who died that year from bone cancer. Pinn felt that her mother's doctor had been cold and unresponsive to her mother's complaints, diagnosing her pains as a problem with posture that could be corrected by wearing more supportive shoes. Pinn was convinced that the doctor had missed her mother's bone tumor because he had not paid close enough attention to the complaints of a black female patient. This painful experience only increased her determination to become the kind of doctor who would attend to all of her patients with thoroughness and kindness. Thirty-one years later, Pinn herself would survive the same kind of cancer that killed her mother, because a more careful doctor would discover her tumor much sooner.
Back at school in Massachusetts, Pinn took a summer job that would change the course of her career. Working as a research assistant with Dr. Benjamin Barnes at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, she began to learn about the field of immunopathology. Pathologists are doctors who study tissue, cells, and fluids from various parts of the body in order to find the cause of disease. Immunopathologists are particularly concerned with organ transplants, and what factors in the body make them successful or unsuccessful.
After her graduation from Wellesley in 1963, Pinn went south again to attend the University of Virginia School of Medicine. She was the only person of color and the only woman in her class and often felt isolated. During the summer, she returned to Massachusetts to continue her research training in immunopathology. After her graduation from medical school in 1967, she went to work and study with Dr. Martin Flax at Massachusetts General Hospital, learning about kidney disease and transplants.
When Flax got a job offer from nearby Tufts University in 1970, he asked Pinn to go with him to teach pathology. She agreed and began a new career as a teacher. Pinn welcomed the chance to encourage young students, especially minorities and women, to go into medical fields, "I don't think you're truly a good doctor or a good researcher if you don't reach back to help others coming along," she said. Whether as a doctor, a teacher, or a mentor, her career goals had always revolved around helping others.
Pinn taught pathology at Tufts until 1982 when she was offered a job at Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the nation's most respected traditionally black colleges. Howard hired Pinn as professor and chair of the pathology department, where she continued to encourage and support young African Americans to seek careers in medicine.
In 1991, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) contacted Pinn about an exciting new project. The NIH, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the nation's major center of medical research. Pinn was invited to be the first director of a new office of the NIH, the Office of Research on Women's Health. The new office was the first of its kind, established to ensure that women would be included in research studies about new medical techniques and therapies. Traditionally, issues of women's health had focused only on the reproductive organs and breast cancer. However, Pinn's new office began to research how a wide variety of health issues affect women in special ways. This included studies of what particular diseases women get and the ways treatment and diagnosis may differ between women and men. This work to uncover the specific ways disease and the medical system affect women was directly related to the promise Pinn had made to herself when her mother died. She would work to make sure that all people had responsive and thorough health care.
Pinn has also continued her work as a mentor. In her role as director of the Office of Research on Women's Health, she has focused on drawing girls and women to careers in scientific fields. In her personal life, she maintained close connections with many of her thousands of former students, who she considered part of her extended family.
"Heart Disease and Blacks," Ebony Magazine, February, 1990, p.176.
"Putting Women First," The Journal of Minority Medical Students, Fall 1994.
"The Status of Women's Health Research: Where are African American Women?" The Journal of the National Black Nurses Association, 1996, pp. 8-19.
"Women's Health Research for the Twenty-first Century," Journal of Dental Education, March 1999.
"Sex and Gender Factors in Medical Studies: Implications for Health and Clinical Practice," Journal of the American Medical Association, 2003, pp. 397-400.
Ebony, December 1989, pp. 126-27; April 1990, pp. 84-85.
Gender Medicine, 2004.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 2, 2004.
"High Standards Are a Plus," Women Working 2000, www.womenworking2000.com/feature/index.php?id=58 (November 15, 2004).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Vivian Pinn on December 8, 2004.
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