Interview

Academy of Women's Health Profile:  

Vivian Pinn

By Mitzi Perdue


Academy of Women’s Health Board Member Vivian Pinn is a star when it comes to women’s health.     Her pioneering advocacy of women's health issues and concerns, particularly for assuring that federally funded medical studies include female patients, has had a major impact on how medicine is practiced today.

Pinn’s interest in medicine began at an early age. When she was four years old, she observed that whenever a doctor visited her ill grandparents, not only did her grandparents feel better, the whole family seemed to feel better.  Pinn knew even then that she wanted to be, as with that doctor, someone who made people feel better.  Interestingly, by age four she had already learned to spell “pediatrician.”

By age seven, she was giving her grandmother insulin shots.  How did this happen? Both Pinn’s parents worked, and since someone was needed to administer the injections, Pinn learned to do it.  

Pinn’s desire to go into medicine grew stronger when, at age 19, she lost her 46-year old mother to bone cancer. Tragically, the doctor had ignored Pinn’s mother’s complaints about back pain, dismissing it as nothing more than a posture problem. To this day, Pinn feels that if the doctor had been more willing to listen, her mother might have survived.  

Pinn knew she wanted a career in medicine, but choosing this career, as an African-American in the early 1960s, took courage and determination. At the University of Virginia School of Medicine, she was both the only African-American student and the only female student in her class. Today that medical school has an advisory college named for her.

After earning her medical degree in 1967, she completed her residency in pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1970, Pinn joined the pathology department at Tufts University School of Medicine, where she was promoted to a tenured associate professor and assistant dean of student affairs.  And then in 1982, she was appointed chair of the Pathology Department at Howard University.  At the time of her appointment, Pinn was the third woman and the first African-American woman to lead a U.S. pathology department.

As a tenured professor and chair of a department, she was enjoying her life in academic medicine.  However, she was increasingly disturbed that except for reproductive medicine, virtually all medicine, including clinical trials, was almost exclusively focused on men. The deeper she got into it, the more she realized how little we knew specifically about women. She often found herself the lone woman among physicians and she was painfully aware that too often her colleagues tended to ignore women’s symptoms. Back then, medicine for women focused almost exclusively on reproductive medicine, and she saw that some doctors were too quick to dismiss “women’s complaints” as being “only in their heads.”  Hearing women’s complaints being dismissed like this must have caused her to remember how badly medicine had served her mother.

By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the advocacy, legislative and scientific communities began to pay serious attention to the issue, especially as more focus was being given to research on conditions that affect both women and men, primarily being conducted based on the male as the norm.  And at this point, a chance event changed Pinn’s life.

Dr. Bernadine Healy, the first and only woman to serve as Director of the NIH, held a meeting to discuss the newly created Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH), the first such office within HHS.  Pinn attended the meeting. “I was excited about this new office,” recalls Pinn, “and put my hand up to make some suggestions such as making sure that women of color and careers of women in research should be included as part of the mandate.”  

Pinn feels that if she hadn’t raised her hand at that meeting she wouldn’t have been on the radar of the NIH officials. However, when shortly after that meeting, they were looking for a permanent director of the new ORWH, they offered Pinn the position.

She was initially hesitant, but that lasted only minutes.  It would mean leaving a position she loved, and further, she worried, “I don’t think I can last in government.  I like to say what I think!”

She’s never regretted the decision. In her time at ORWH, she used her position to ensure that clinical trials today include women, and as a federal policymaker, she worked to raise awareness of women's health issues and also of underrepresentation in science and medicine. She retired in 2011 but is still advocating for inclusion of women, women scientists, and underserved minorities in every aspect of biomedical research.

Pinn’s career has been marked by many honors.  The Academy of Women's Health Annual Vivian Pinn Women’s Health Research Keynote address is named after her and she also received the Academy’s first Bernadine Healy Award which was presented by Dr. Healy’s daughter who was a guest at the event. Most recently, she was honored by being inducted into the Modern Healthcare Hall of Fame.