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‘Bout Time

A history of UTHealth & the Texas Medical Center

Unsung heroines of the Texas Medical Center

Posted: February 14, 2014
Texas Medical Center as it looked in 1953

The Texas Medical Center as it looked in 1953

Look around the Texas Medical Center and the names on our medical buildings and you’ll find few honoring women. It was a different day in medicine and most of the health professions back in the 1940s when the Texas Medical Center was born. Except in nursing, women simply were not in leadership roles as these medical center schools and institutions were created. In fact, in as recent as 1965 less than 9 percent of students accepted into U.S. medical schools were women, compared  to 47 percent in 2012, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC).

Having three daughters, these numbers matter to me and we can share more than a bit of pride in the many contributions women are making today as leaders across all the health professions. But not so fast. Let’s not overlook the fact that if you go back in time, there were women behind the leadership of these great institutions who made a critical difference in the success and sometimes the very survival of our early medical center institutions. They deserve more attention.

Frances Goff

Francis Goff

Frances Goff

When R. Lee Clark arrived in Houston in 1946 to take the helm of the new cancer hospital named for Monroe Dunaway Anderson, among his highest priorities was to get to Austin and learn the ropes of working with state Legislature and the appropriations process behind state funding. Arriving in Austin he would often ask how this or that worked and repeatedly the response was, “Go ask Frances.” His response: “Who’s Frances?”

Frances Goff began her career in Austin in 1937 and was the right hand of legislators and governors alike. In 1946 she was named state budget director and assisted in writing the bill creating the Legislative Budget Board. Clark not only asked Goff for advice, but within five years he recruited her to Houston to help him as he moved the new cancer hospital from temporary quarters near downtown to the forest that would become the medical city, the Texas Medical Center. Behind the scenes Goff was everywhere and involved in all aspects of Clark’s new cancer hospital right down to the color and placement of the chairs in the reception area.

As a new employee in the early 1970s I was warned not to upset Goff. Tape a patient education flyer or meeting notice in one of “her” elevators and she would hunt you down, they said. To this day I have a phobia of posters taped in elevators. Beyond her medical center duties, for more than four decades she donated her spare time to serve as director of Texas Bluebonnet Girls State, a summer leadership development organization for young women throughout our state. She was the role model and mentor behind many successful careers that broke gender barriers statewide and beyond. One young lady who had graduated from Waco High School in 1950 listened carefully to Goff’s advice and showed great potential. She would become our state’s 45th governor, Ann Richards.

Later in the early 1990s I had an office next to Goff and became a close friend to her. Her stories of the early days were both colorful and classic. After she retired from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (MD Anderson) in 1982, Goff continued to serve the hospital and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) where she was on the Harris County Psychiatric Hospital (HCPC) volunteer advisory board with me in the early 1990s.

Francis Goff and Gov. Ann Richards

The signed photo of Frances Goff and Gov. Ann Richards framed on Goff's
office wall reads, "To Frances who started me on this career many years ago.
I love you. Ann 1987"

From Austin to the Texas Medical Center, Goff was never short of opinion. She knew how to get things done. Some days I’d look for her next door only to learn she had been called to Austin by the governor for timely advice. That she had a framed photo of Gov. Richards on her office wall inscribed with words of deep appreciation for her mentorship reminded me daily that Goff knew people in high places and in most cases had helped them get there.

Goff died in 1994 and was buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin not far from the governors and key figures she knew and served. There is no building at MD Anderson honoring her name. But when I look at the ever-expanding MD Anderson campus, I see Frances Goff looking back.

Elna Birath

Elna Birath

Elna Birath

In 1932 Fred Elliott, the new dean of the Texas Dental College, arrived in Houston to save the floundering, for-profit college, get its budget in the black, and find a university affiliation. He accomplished all of the above and more but not without help. By 1950 he had The University of Texas Dental Branch’s new building in the medical center under construction and took over the leadership of the medical center at large following the death of Ernst Bertner, the founding director of our medical city.

Elliott was a star in the history of our UTHealth School of Dentistry and this medical center and would be the first to tell you much of his success in those years was due to Elna Birath, a woman employee he met on his first day in Houston. In his own words penned in 1986 before his death, “When I learned of the work that Mrs. Elna Birath had been doing, I came to the conclusion that she was a jack-of-all-trades. She was carrying out the administrative responsibilities of a dean, a business manager, and a building superintendent. She had only three other full-time employees to help her. She possessed an unusual ability to successfully carry out every project that she started…I now realize that if Mrs. Birath had not been as helpful as she was, had she not given me continuous encouragement, I might not have remained in Houston.”

Mrs. Birath – as she preferred to be called – introduced Elliott and his wife to the Houston community, advised him on which individuals and organizations he should touch base with and handled budget reports that were bad news more often than good. She, like Elliott, often held her paycheck before cashing to help the school make ends meet and watched with pride as he handed the dental college over to The University of Texas in 1943 with finances in the black.

Fred Elliott at the podium during groundbreaking for our dental school building in the Texas Medical Center, May 3, 1952

Fred Elliott at the podium during the groundbreaking for our dental
school building in the Texas Medical Center May 3, 1952

At the May 3, 1952, groundbreaking ceremony for the new UT Dental Branch building, Elliott asked Mrs. Birath to sit on the platform near the podium for the momentous occasion. She refused, noting she would only sit on the platform if all the women who had helped her could sit there as well. In Elliott’s words years later, “She was right. But she knew that I knew that this day of celebration might not have been possible had she not insisted that I remain with the dental college during a bleak time when I had wanted to resign.”

With Elliott being one of nine individuals who had signed the original charter establishing the Texas Medical Center as a corporate entity in 1945, it seems clear that Elna Birath was more than an office accountant. One might suggest she played a pivotal role in supporting, perhaps retaining, a central figure, Fred Elliott, who would guide a small collection of hospitals and schools in the 1940s and 1950s to become the medical city we know today.

Josie Roberts

Josie Roberts

Josie Roberts

Enter Methodist Hospital off Bertner Avenue and you’ll see in the lobby a prominent plaque honoring Josie Roberts. It was back in 1908 that local physician Oscar Norsworthy added a 33-bed hospital next to his clinic, which doubled as his residence, on San Jacinto Street and Rosalie Street. In 1919 he sold his small hospital to the Texas Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. By 1924 Methodist Hospital would have 70 beds and a 30-member staff. That was the year Roberts hired on as chief clerk. Over time, like Goff and Birath, she became a one-woman dynamo.

Step forward two decades in time. In the 1940s Baylor’s teaching hospital was Hermann Hospital with some patients cared for at Methodist Hospital down on San Jacinto. A young surgeon named Michael DeBakey was hired in 1948 from Tulane by Baylor’s dean, Walter Moursund, and quickly caught the attention of Roberts who was now the hospital’s administrator. Roberts clearly had an eye for talent and instructed the Methodist staff that this DeBakey was an up-and-comer and to be sure to give him anything he or his patients needed. In time Methodist would become the teaching hospital of Baylor.

Roberts was a force behind the success of Methodist throughout her 29 years of service. While plans in the early 1940s had been made to expand the hospital across the street near downtown on land owned by the Fondren family, offers of land in the new Texas Medical Center were accepted. In 1951 the new, 300-bed Methodist Hospital opened in the new medical center joining other new comers to the forest off Fannin Street, including MD Anderson and Baylor.

Roberts oversaw every detail working with the hospital’s board as the transition was made. She stepped down as administrator two years after the move and could only be proud as the 33-bed hospital Norsworthy built became overnight The Methodist Hospital with 300 beds and modern facilities that were the new benchmark for other hospitals to aspire. She clearly demonstrated that even without a formal education, one person with love of an institution and a commitment to excellence can create a legacy of service.           

Benjy Brooks

Benjy Brooks

Benjy Brooks

That she was the first woman pediatric surgeon in Texas is impressive enough but Benjy Brooks was much more than that. She first arrived in Houston in 1958 when she joined the new Texas Children’s Hospital that opened doors in the Texas Medical Center five years earlier. In 1973 she joined our new UT Medical School.

I first met Brooks in 1996 at one of our Medical School’s student retreats at Camp Allen where each August newly accepted students are welcomed and oriented. She was long retired but still volunteering her surgical skills for children in need around the world. She had just returned from Romania, “the only country that will still let me do surgery,” she reported with a wink. She noted she would not miss one of these retreats because she wanted to personally greet every young woman accepted to our medical school. Women in health professions mattered to her.

Growing up in rural Flower Mound, Texas, which is now a northern suburb of Dallas, her interest in pediatric surgery dated back to her early childhood when she crawled under the family dining table with her sister’s favorite dolls and carefully removed the squeaker from the doll’s chest. Then, as her sister howled in protest, she would take her mother’s sewing thread and stitch the doll back together. Her sister complained continually that her dolls rarely squeaked after the ordeal. Years later when Benjy graduated from The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in 1944, her mother wrote her that she hoped her daughter would be more successful with her patients than she was with her sister’s dolls. And she was.

Benjy Brooks operated on more than 20,000 tiny babies over her career. In the early days she bought jeweler instruments and customized them for the intricate surgery she performed. She noted that to get her through the day, between surgeries she would drive to a nearby school playground to watch healthy children at play. Then she would return to the operating room, energized and focused for her next surgery.

Brook’s love of the students and her determination to mentor and open doors for women in health care was even more impressive to me. There’s a portrait of her in a pediatric conference room in our medical school where I once facilitated problem-based learning, or case studies, for a small group of second-year medical students.

Half of the eight students that day were women and had no idea who Benjy Brooks was. Brooks died in 1998, three years before these students entered our medical school so her name was unknown to all in the group. I told them the story behind the portrait on the wall and each stared in surprise. I could tell they were impressed to know the legacy of this pioneering woman surgeon who belonged to UTHealth. Had they known her in person, they would have been even more inspired.

Benjy Brooks, Frances Goff, Elna Birath, and Josie Roberts are typically overlooked as our collective memory of the past fades. Their names may not be on buildings but be assured their contributions were monumental to UTHealth and the Texas Medical Center at large. Without the contributions of these and numerous other women, both of the past and the present, our success and impressive accomplishments as a medical city would not be what they are today.

Bryant Boutwell

‘Bout Time is about connecting our past to our present. Dr. Bryant Boutwell is the John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. He is the author of two books on the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center and writes this column to share the stories of our past—stories that define who we are and how we got here.

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