Vivian Pinn

When Vivian Pinn was 4 years old, she announced that one day she would be a doctor.

Nov 7, 2005
Kate Fodor

Courtesy of Vivian Pinn

When Vivian Pinn was 4 years old, she announced that one day she would be a doctor. The declaration was unusual coming from an African-American girl in the segregated South, but her schoolteacher parents encouraged her aspirations no matter how far-fetched they might have seemed.

"During those early formative years I was never told that it was something I couldn't or shouldn't do," recalls Pinn, who earned her medical degree from the University of Virginia in 1967 and now directs the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health. "I was just told I'd better study hard and work for it."

Pinn's interest in medicine never wavered, but a summer job as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital while she was a premedical student at Wellesley College shifted her ambitions away from patient care. She worked with a surgeon exploring organ transplantation. "That's when I first got exposed to what research was about, and I found it so exciting that the rest of my life has sort of developed out of that one experience."

It was in medical school, as the only woman and the only person of color in her class, that Pinn realized it wouldn't always be easy to win acceptance from her peers. "Those were tough years," she remembers, "but you learn to answer the criticisms by showing you are on top of everything and working hard. One of my classmates once came up to me and said, 'Vivian, you shouldn't be here. I read in my anatomy book that women have smaller brains than men, so you will never make it through medical school because you can't compete."' The story makes her laugh when she recalls, "I graduated, and he flunked out in his second year."

Pinn returned to Mass General during her summers in medical school, and went back again after graduation for a pathology internship on an NIH training grant. When her mentor there left to head up the pathology department at Tufts University, he took her with him. She soon became an associate professor and ran the central pathology lab for a long-term, multisite study of idiopathic adult nephritic syndrome. Eventually, she was named assistant dean of student affairs, a post she left in the 1980s to become chair of the pathology department at Howard University.

This made Pinn the first African-American woman, and the third woman ever, to lead a pathology department. "With so few women who were department chairs in the early 80s, you often felt like you were being looked at like you couldn't be serious," she remembers. "You really have to learn to exert your authority without losing your cool."

Pinn moved to the NIH 14 years ago. She is proud of having been part of a movement that turned women's health from "something that was dismissed as just PC [politically correct] to something that is appreciated as a true scientific endeavor worthy of being an office at the NIH."

While she often works seven days a week, Pinn has no regrets. "I may be a little bit tired," she says, "but I still get so excited about it all."

This year, she returned to the University of Virginia to deliver the commencement address before 30,000 people. She told the crowd that she had not forgotten the difficulties she faced there, but added: "I learned then, and have confirmed as years go by, that we can either dwell in the smallness of slights or difficulties, or rejoice in the larger meanings of life's experiences, and build a positive, constructive, and worldly view of the barriers we have faced and the satisfaction of having overcome them."