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Stephanie Pincus, MD: Pilot Your Own Plane

By Stephanie Pincus, MD

Stephanie Pincus, MD

Taking Off: My Journey’s Beginning.

I entered Harvard Medical School in 1964; only 10 women in a class of 125. From the West Coast (Reed College by way of LA), Boston and Harvard were far off “places with a good reputation.” In the pre-internet days the ability to learn about places without an actual site visit was limited to glossy brochures, word of mouth and at best a vague feeling that it was a safe place with a good reputation. It was okay to go somewhere without knowing every detail before you arrived. So I went.

My arrival found me in the women’s segregated dorm. Expectations of our ability to compete were also “segregated” but were shattered when the women in the class had an equal overall grade average to that of the men. Yes! Harvard was so unsure of the women’s abilities that it kept track of such things! Maybe an apocryphal tale, but one that went along with the difficulties we faced which we accepted out of the gratitude we felt just to be let in.

In Flight—Not Without Turbulence.

Third year in medical school, my surgical rotation. At 5 AM I got up, grabbed my $5 Goodwill mink coat, and raced a block through darkness, snow, and ice to the hospital where I made rounds myself, in charge of the surgical ward of a prestigious Boston hospital during Christmas vacation. While my work earned me an “A” from the residents, the Chief of Surgery granted me a “C” lest I believe I was fit to be a surgeon. This theme of keeping women out was echoed during an interview at a Harvard hospital for a residency training position, “Take a good look around, we don’t think you want to be here.”

Notwithstanding being shunned by the Boston Mecca of Medicine, I still had much to overcome. I moved across the country four times, married, had two children, became board certified in internal medicine and dermatology, achieved success as an NIH funded investigator, divorced, remarried, had a third child, and finally settled in Buffalo, New York. I came there to be Chair of the Department of Dermatology at the University at Buffalo. I’m told that I was their first woman chair; the year was 1989. This was the first time I had not just taken what was offered, but had negotiated a salary and ancillary package. I learned (no surprise) that if you ask for things you get them. It had taken me decades to figure out that if I knew where I wanted to go and how, I was much more likely to get to a place I wanted to be.

Anatomy Class

Cruising at High Altitude.

Looking back I realized that much of my own life, both personal and professional, had been characterized by a willingness to “go with the flow.” Challenging authority or convention was frowned upon, so I learned to follow the suggestions of others. “You know Stephanie, you really ought to go into dermatology” spurred my move to this visually oriented field which happened to be a great fit, but not my initial idea. Like many of the women in my class, I had moved to accommodate the professional goals of my husband at the time, tailored my career to my husband’s needs, and progressed professionally largely guided by that and other external influences.

Despite my negotiations in Buffalo, the University did not exactly go along with my vision and mission for excellence for the Department of Dermatology. Lack of resources and a general devaluation of women led me to leave this position, and even give up a life-long tenured salary position. Gutsy or stupid? Actually neither or both, it was a recognition that the position was turning me in to a person that I didn’t want to be.

”What next?” I asked myself.

As I seriously reflected upon my own life, it became clear of my own growing sense of satisfaction, both personal and professional, correlated with my decision that led me to take charge of my life and guide my own course. Like most women of that era, I believed I needed education and credentials for advancement. So off to business school I went, a weekend commuting program at Northwestern’s Kellogg School called. Amazingly the professors actually cared if the class understood. When we (the class) did poorly on an economics exam, the answer was a special Saturday session with the instructor asking us what he/they/the school needed to do so we could learn the material. My attitude toward education was transformed by this experience.

With my degree I was ready to examine the alternatives, “Should I leave a life-long tenured position?” I could even calculate the economic cost. But mental sanity trumps dollars for me.


So finally, for my next position, I had considered carefully the ramifications of a radical approach to my own work, a highly responsible position with national responsibilities that would require me to leave my husband and 14 year old son during the weekdays. I started to travel to Washington, DC (5:30 AM Monday morning flight, Friday afternoon noon time) and work as the leader of the educational mission of the Veterans Health Administration (80,000 trainees including residents and a budget of $500million plus or minus). The travel was hard, but the work was satisfying; I was respected. It felt good, but after four years it was time to return to home base.

I began to wonder. Did other women have similar stories? Did women find more personal and professional satisfaction when they took charge of their lives?

Landing and Getting Ready to Refuel.

And so began a time of new exploration, a book about “ordinary” women taking command of their lives. I talked to women all over the country, both on the phone and in person, collecting stories of women, not only physicians, taking charge of their lives. The stories were exceptional. The young lady who went from high school dropout to cheese buyer at Whole Foods. The health-care attorney who left a high paying job to sell couture clothes. The mother of 3 with breast cancer who was dumped by her husband but went back to school to become a mental health counselor. There are many, many more. The unifying theme: taking stock, evaluating the options, and making your own individual choice. This, I found, was the key to personal satisfaction. This is not to say that the needs of others were not considered, but that controlling one’s own life is what leads to that inner affirmation so necessary for solid relationships with those around you whom you love and value.

These stories also taught me that there is no perfect answer. Choices, options, trade-off’s, acceptance, or whatever you want to call it. What is crucial is the sense of empowerment that comes from knowing it’s your own choice, that you’ve steered yourself to where you want to go, even though it may not be a utopian paradise.


Some choices, sadly, are not your own. In 2008, I lost my husband to cancer. I interrupted collecting the stories of others and went back to my own. After a year in suspension between acute grief and a new life, I decided to spend some time following my interests at the Institute of Medicine formulating ideas which might lead to policies and practices around end of life care. I live near my daughter and now have grandchildren to visit. I spend time in my “summer home” in Buffalo where my son and I have good friends and a sense of community and belonging.

Refueling in flight.

Now 2 1/2 years of widowhood have quickly gone by. This has been a period of rest and recovery. However, my life long journey of making a difference and following my interests is not over. I know that I will continue to be actively involved. Exactly what is not clear, but within the broad frame of improving health and striving for social justice. However, my default prioritization is now family first and work second. Who cares what others think about me, I’m happy to be that outspoken lady with ideas. Stay tuned to see where the “plane” finally lands. In the interim, I’ll keep on flying.

4 Notes

  1. Comment

  2. Thank you for your personal & professional story. It is encouraging.

  3. Deb Whalen (has been to one of your seminars) suggested I get your book to help my husband through some cancer treatments. Where can I get it and how much $? Thanks for sharing your story.

  4. Starting June 4th and every Saturday Tower Group 8pm meeting will be a step study/step doing.For those inreeesttd in going through the steps while we study the steps I’ll be more than glad to assist you.Bring a 1 or 3 subject spiral notebook,pen,highlighter and your Big Book.This is going to be fun as well as a new experience.Yes We have entered the world of the Spirit.Our next function is to grow in understanding and effectiveness.


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