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...

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