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.