Dr. Vivian Pinn

Top left: Pinn is surrounded by medical students on Family Day in 2015 at Pinn College, part of the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Bottom left: Pinn, along with Dr. Sharonne Hayes, left, of the Mayo Clinic and Dr. Monica Parker, at the 2013 Annual Congress on Women's Health. They collaborated on a project highlighting the ongoing healthcare challenges African-American women face.

No shortage of wins for 'matriarch' who paved path for students' success
Dr. Vivian Pinn is a pioneer in many regards. She was the only woman and the lone minority student to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Medicine in 1967. She was the first African-American woman to chair an academic pathology department in the U.S. In 1991, she became the inaugural full-time director of the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health.

But when asked about her most significant achievement, Pinn does not mention any of those firsts, or her career accolades and numerous honors, which include testifying before Congress on more than a dozen occasions, serving on several scientific journal editorial boards and receiving 13 honorary doctorates.

Instead, she talks about her former students. Pinn has worked tirelessly over the years to encourage career paths in medicine and science, especially for young African-Americans and women.
“Some of my students now have grandkids, which is strange, because I still think of them as the youngsters they were,” Pinn said.

Just recently, a student from the mid-'90s sent Pinn a photo of a new grandchild. The ongoing connections with students and physicians she has mentored are clearly a point of pride for Pinn, who did not have children of her own.
Their successes are “the greatest measure of what I've been able to contribute,” she said, adding that in some senses, they are her “surrogate family.”

Colleagues and former students are quick to reciprocate the warmth. Valerie Montgomery Rice, dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and its first female president, credits Pinn's “selfless service” and described her as the “matriarch of African-American and women physicians and scientists.” The two women met in the late 1990s when Rice was conducting research at the NIH.

Selected career highlights

1967: Receives medical degree from the University of Virginia
1967-70: Teaching fellow in pathology at Harvard Medical School; National Institutes of Health research fellow, Massachusetts General Hospital
1971-76: Assistant professor of pathology, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston
1974-82: Assistant dean for student affairs, Tufts University School of Medicine
1982-91: Professor and chairwoman, Department of Pathology, Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, D.C.
1991-2011: Director of the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health, Bethesda, Md.

Other notable achievements

1989-90: President of the National Medical Association
1995: Elected to the Institute of Medicine
2011: Special recognition from the Association of American Medical Colleges, honoring "exceptional leadership to improve the health of and career opportunities for women and minorities"
2012: Winner of the first Bernadine Healy Award for Visionary Leadership in Women's Health, awarded by the Congress on Women's Health

Dr. Isaac Bartley, one of Pinn's former students, led efforts to establish the Vivian W. Pinn, M.D., Scholarship Initiative at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston about six years ago.

In a story about the scholarship on Tufts' website, Bartley described Pinn as a mentor who gave students “confidence, direction, clarity of purpose, emotional support (and) access to funds.” Bartley, president of the Pasadena (Calif.) Gastroenterology Medical Group, said Pinn “made it possible to be where we are today.”
Teresa Kendrix, who was Pinn's administrative officer at the NIH for two decades, said that although Pinn's stature meant that she was in “great demand domestically and internationally, she maintained an open-door policy.”

“She always made time to listen, to advise and to guide,” Kendrix said.

For Pinn's accomplishments and her ongoing influence in the healthcare field, she has been chosen for induction into the Health Care Hall of Fame.

Looking back to the beginning of Pinn's career hints at the central focus that mentoring would come to play in her professional life.

After graduating with honors from medical school, Pinn took a position as a pathology instructor at Tufts. She easily formed a rapport with the students and enjoyed facilitating student activities, so much so that the dean took notice and joked that he might as well give her the job in recognition of her efforts. In 1974, she was officially made assistant dean for student affairs while concurrently serving in other roles at Tufts.

During that time, Pinn was also director of a controlled multiyear clinical trial that led to an alternative treatment for nephrotic syndrome, a form of kidney disease.

She left Boston in 1982 for Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., where she became the third woman and first African-American woman to chair an academic medical department in the U.S.

Pinn ran the department for nine years until she was appointed to lead the Office of Research on Women's Health, which had been newly formed by then-NIH Director Dr. Bernadine Healy. Reflecting on it, Pinn saw the opportunity as a product of being in the right place at the right time.

She attended a meeting where Healy discussed her vision for the office. Intrigued, Pinn kept raising her hand and asking questions, which must have left an impression on Healy, because she followed up shortly thereafter to ask Pinn to take on the role. At first, Pinn wasn't keen on the idea and told Healy, “I don't think I'll succeed in government because I like to say what I think.”

Despite her initial hesitance, Pinn accepted the job that day, recognizing the opportunity that working on women's health issues under the first female NIH director presented. Over her tenure, Pinn grew the office from a staff of four and a budget of $1.5 million to a staff of 15 with a budget of $43 million.

That's just a sliver of the advancements in which she's had a hand—Pinn has received more than 250 awards and served in numerous leadership capacities, including as president of the National Medical Association in 1989.
While she clearly has had no shortage of wins, all successful career paths have at least a few low moments.

For Pinn, one of those moments came early in her career when she was called in to interview for a dean position at a well-known medical school in the Northeast. Pinn said that during the interview, it was clear that the school wasn't truly considering her for the position. Instead, she got the impression that they had called her in for the interview “to round out the Equal Employment Opportunity statistics.”

Soon after, the school announced that it had given the position to an internal candidate. Pinn said she found the experience very hurtful, and it took her years to work up the courage to apply for another position. But as the story of her career unfolded, that incident turned out to be a blip on the radar.

Several key values have informed Pinn's success. She disapproves of arrogance, especially in medicine, and characterizes herself as a hard worker—always wanting to exceed expectations.

She attributes that to being from a family of teachers who stressed the importance of studying hard. “Being a black woman growing up in the '40s and '50s in the South, there were no physicians in my family,” Pinn says of her early days in Lynchburg, Va.

She's careful to mention that her parents never said being a doctor was unattainable, “but if I wanted to do it, I had to work for it,” Pinn said.