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Celebrating our women pioneers

For Women's History Month, we are honoring three women leaders within AGA.
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Women are underrepresented in medical sub-specialties including gastroenterology. Historically, gastroenterology has been male dominated, with few women in top leadership positions. Gender bias, family responsibilities, institutional practices all contribute to this gender gap. Although the gender gap has decreased, significant disparities continue to exist. Therefore, it is particularly worth recognizing those women who have successfully reached leadership positions that have been filled predominantly by men.

AGA is the oldest gastroenterological society in America and was founded in 1897. Past and current AGA leadership have increasingly supported the accomplishments of women in the field but there is more left to accomplish. Despite these efforts it is important to highlight that only three women have had the honor of being president of AGA over its 100+ year history: Dr. Sara Jordan (1942), Dr. Gail Hecht (2009) and Dr. Sheila Crowe (2017). 

In 1942, Dr. Sara Jordan became the first female president of AGA. This was a remarkable accomplishment. She held this leadership position almost 80 years ago, and it would take nearly 70 years for another woman to reach this position. She was a strong advocate for the rights of all women in medicine. After being dissuaded from pursuing medicine by her parents and going into another field, she was conditionally accepted (on ‘probation’) to study medicine at Tufts University in 1917. The probation was lifted and she was graduated from medical school after, on her request, an investigation by the AMA revealed that she completed all her courses. She completed gastroenterology training at Rush Medical College in Chicago. She started her academic career in Boston in 1923 at the Lahey Clinic where she was the head of gastroenterology. She focused on peptic ulcer disease and gastric cancer and was one of the first doctors that advocated for medical rather than surgical treatment for these conditions. 

Dr. Gail Hecht, was the first female president of AGA (2009) since World War II. She graduated from Loyola University Medical School, completed an internal medicine residency at the University of Minnesota, and followed by a gastroenterology fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston. She is a professor of medicine and microbiology/immunology and chief of gastroenterology and nutrition at Loyola University. She has many accomplishments and recognitions, the most recent of which is the Julius M. Friedenwald Medal, the highest honor given to any AGA member. She is a great example of what a woman with determination, intelligence and curiosity can accomplish. She was born in Carthage, Missouri and attended class in a two-room schoolhouse. From this beginning, she rose to train and work in some of the most prestigious medical centers in the U.S. Her accomplishments in the field are unparalleled. Her research focuses on the interactions between host and pathogen specifically regarding enteropathogenic Escherichia coli. 

Dr. Sheila Crowe was the third and most recent female president of AGA in 2017. She is a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego (USCD). She is from Canada and received her medical degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario where she also completed her residency in internal medicine and her fellowship in gastroenterology. She started her academic career at McMaster and continued her career in the U.S. She was first at University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and then moved to the University of Virginia until 2011, when she was recruited to USCD as the director of research in the division of gastroenterology and the director of their NIH T32 training grant. Dr. Crowe had an interesting life as well. Her father’s work resulted in her experiencing life in remote areas of Canada, including Ungava Bay in northern Quebec and Pangnirtung on Baffin Island. As a result, she was home schooled during her elementary years. Rather than limiting her, these challenges defined her and demonstrated her resilience. She established herself as an expert in H. Pylori infection and celiac disease. 

These women paved the way for the new generation of female gastroenterologists. The success of these exceptional women is an example that any goal is possible, no matter how challenging it might be. Although progress has been made towards gender equality, there is still a long road to go. It is key to provide early support and increase awareness of the importance of the involvement of women in leadership roles in professional societies and academic positions to continue to close the gender gap in the field.

Written by
Mayra Sanchez, MD, HHC, Neurogastroenterology and Motility Center
Veroushka Ballester, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Medicine University of Puerto Rico-Comprehensive Cancer Center
Ibironke Oduyebo, MD, MS, Kaiser Permanente Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group

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