From the COVID vaccine to pulsars to computer programming, women are at the source of many scientific discoveries, inventions and innovations that shape our lives. But in the stories we’ve come to accept about those breakthroughs, women are too often left out.
Each season at Lost Women of Science, we’ll look at one woman and her scientific accomplishment: who she was, how she lived and what she found out. Katie Hafner, a longtime reporter for the New York Times, explains the science behind each woman’s work and explores the historical context in which she lived.
Our first season, “The Pathologist in the Basement,” is all about Dorothy Andersen, a physician and pathologist who solved a medical mystery when she identified and defined cystic fibrosis in 1938. A passionate outdoorswoman, a “rugged individualist” and a bit of an enigma, Andersen changed the way we understand acute lung and gastrointestinal problems in young children.
This podcast is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.
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SCOTT BAIRD: I’ve come to, uh, Columbia hospital. Columbia University Medical Center’s Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, formerly Babies Hospital, and am looking to see if I can track down the portrait of Dorothy Andersen.
First stop will be some of the administrative offices on the first floor of the old Babies Hospital.
KATIE HAFNER: I’m Katie Hafner, and this is Lost Women of Science, a podcast in which we unearth stories of scientists who didn’t receive the recognition they deserved. At Lost Women of Science, we’re revisiting the historical record, one extraordinary scientist at a time.
We devote each season to the life and work of one woman. We’re calling this season “The Pathologist in the Basement.” It’s about Dorothy Andersen, the doctor who was the first to identify cystic fibrosis almost 90 years ago, in 1938.
This episode is going to be a bit different from the rest. And that’s because we’re going to focus on just one thing—a single detail that may seem trivial at first. A piece of art.
A portrait of Dr. Andersen was commissioned in 1963, right around the time she died. It was donated to Babies Hospital at Columbia, where she worked for more than 30 years. The portrait hung in the old entrance to the hospital for some time, but it has since gone missing. It’s been many decades since anyone we talked to has seen it.
So, Dr. Scott Baird—yes, Scott Baird again, the pediatric intensivist-turned-biographer you heard from in previous episodes—he’s become our go-to guy for all things Dorothy Andersen. So Scott, a really good sport who would do anything to advance the story of Dorothy Andersen, and who happens to work at Columbia, volunteered to try to hunt down the portrait.
SCOTT BAIRD: No luck on the first floor administrative offices and no luck up in the seventh floor, the pediatric pulmonary/cystic fibrosis center, either.
KATIE HAFNER: The administrative offices and hallways at Columbia’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital are not lined with portraits.
Instead, they are lined with art meant for their young patients. There are display shelves full of children’s books, bright colorful designs painted on the walls, and cartoon drawings of things like the map of Manhattan.
However, it wasn’t always like this.
Portraits used to be a common sight at the old Babies Hospital. We’ve talked to people who remember hallways full of portraits by doctors’ offices. A few even remember seeing a portrait of Dr. Andersen.
As Scott has pointed out to us, change is a given at hospitals. But this is especially true for Columbia’s children’s hospital. Since Scott was a medical student at Columbia, he’s seen a lot of construction—walls torn down, walls put up, buildings repurposed, buildings being built. New buildings have been grafted onto the old. The look and feel of the hospital today is nothing like it used to be several decades ago.
Here’s Scott again:
SCOTT BAIRD: I'm gonna go to the Milstein pavilion.
KATIE HAFNER: This pavilion, by the way, is part of the Milstein Hospital Building at Columbia, which is right down the street from Columbia’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
SCOTT BAIRD: Morning.
STAFF MEMBER: Morning.
SCOTT BAIRD: I'm one of the physicians on the pediatric side. I'm doing a biography on Dorothy Andersen. She was a pathologist and pediatrician who was famous here at Columbia University 80 years ago. There’s supposed to be a portrait of her by a guy named Slater hanging somewhere in the medical center or in storage.
STAFF MEMBER: What's the last name of the, uh...?
SCOTT BAIRD: Dorothy Andersen, A N D E R S E N.
STAFF MEMBER: S E N...Dorothy...
SCOTT BAIRD: And it would have been—it was from 1964. Older woman...
KATIE HAFNER: The hospital employee points at a portrait on the wall, thinking he might have found it.
STAFF MEMBER: It's not, can't be her, cause she’s the first, um...
SCOTT BAIRD: No...
STAFF MEMBER: She's the first director of the nursing school.
KATIE HAFNER: This is the only portrait of a woman in sight. It’s of Anna Maxwell, the first director of the nursing school.
SCOTT: But all the others are just guys?
STAFF MEMBER: We don't happen to have any female portraits. We have some old portraits in the back but there's no females.
SCOTT BAIRD: There's none?
STAFF MEMBER: No, no females in here.
KATIE HAFNER: Scott did indeed find portraits in the administrative offices of the Milstein pavilion, but only one, it seems, was of a woman—Anna Maxwell.
For context, Babies Hospital was founded in 1887 by five women, and throughout its history it’s been home to many prominent female physicians—people like Martha Wollstein, one of the first pathologists to specialize fully in pediatrics, and Hattie Alexander, who developed a serum for influenzal meningitis.
STAFF MEMBER: It might be at the, uh, Columbia, in the Black Building.
SCOTT BAIRD: Thank you very much!
STAFF MEMBER: Alright, good luck to you, sir.
SCOTT BAIRD: Second floor?
STAFF MEMBER: Second floor, the Black Building, right on the corner, yeah, yeah.
SCOTT BAIRD: Thank you.
STAFF MEMBER: You’re welcome, sir.
SCOTT BAIRD: Hi, I have a request. I’m on the faculty over at pediatrics and I’m doing a biography on….I’m doing a biography on Dorothy Andersen...I’m doing a biography on a physician who was here almost a hundred years ago, her name is Dorothy Andersen and she was a pathologist and pediatrician, she was in her 60s, she had gray hair, and she was famous here at Columbia University 80 years ago. There’s a portrait of her…
STAFF MEMBER: Painted of her?
SCOTT BAIRD: Painted by Slater.
STAFF MEMBER: Okay.
SCOTT BAIRD: Somewhere in the medical center. Do you know if you have any portraits on either side?
2nd STAFF MEMBER: I do not.
SCOTT BAIRD: Nothing?
STAFF MEMBER: We’re only seeing men in portraits, at least I have.
2nd STAFF MEMBER: We don’t have any hanging portraits here.
3rd STAFF MEMBER: It’s all guys, there’s no females back there at all, sir.
SCOTT BAIRD: Okay, thank you. Thank you so much.
STAFF MEMBER: Take care, stay healthy.
SCOTT BAIRD: I appreciate it.
STAFF MEMBER: You’re welcome.
SCOTT BAIRD: The medical center gets bigger and bigger…
KATIE HAFNER: It’s afternoon now on a sunny spring day at the end of April. Scott walks out onto Broadway and 165th Street, and I give him a call.
KATIE HAFNER: Hey Scott. Where are you exactly right now?
SCOTT BAIRD: Standing right out front of the old Babies Hospital, and they hadn't seen or heard of it at all, which I suspected.
KATIE HAFNER: So we don't even know where it is yet? I thought you were going to say, Oh, I found it.
SCOTT BAIRD: [Laughs] No, but I, I certainly found evidence of the, of the dude wall.
KATIE HAFNER: The “dude wall.” The “dude wall” is a hot term these days at medical schools and scientific institutions.
And the missing Dorothy Andersen portrait is actually part of a much bigger story.
Here’s NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce reporting on Weekend Sunday about these problematic reminders of the absence of people who weren’t white and weren’t men.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Leslie Vosshall says the term “dude wall” was born at Rockefeller University in New York where she works. Just outside its main auditorium is a wall that's covered with portraits of scientists from the university who've either won the Nobel Prize or a major medical prize that’s sometimes called the American Nobel.
LESLIE VOSSHALL: One hundred percent of them are men, and it's probably 30 headshots of 30 men, so it's, it’s imposing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says a few years ago, TV host Rachel Maddow came there to hand out a prestigious award that's always given to a female scientist. Vosshall says someone overheard Maddow say...
VOSSHALL: What is up with the dude wall? That was her quote. What is up with the dude wall?
KATIE HAFNER: Maddow’s comment gave a name to a problem now being addressed at institutions across the country. Thanks to student activism, places like Yale and Harvard are now also reconsidering the artwork on their walls, in an effort to start reckoning with their histories.
The portrait of Dorothy Andersen is an oil painting done by Frank Slater, a well-known artist who did portraits of many hugely famous people, including H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, and even Queen Elizabeth.
In the finished painting, Dr. Andersen sits in a leather chair, book in hand. She’s wearing a dark suit with a polka-dot blouse and pearl necklace. She’s looking at you--intently, almost as if she’s sizing you up. The corners of her mouth are turned up ever so slightly. At the same time, she looks intense, super focused.
I thought Scott might have more information about the history of the painting.
KATIE HAFNER: So just to back up for a sec, um, do we know for a fact that it did at some point, hang in the lobby of Babies Hospital?
SCOTT BAIRD: I believe it did. I believe there's enough documentation that it did.
KATIE HAFNER: Mm-hmm.
SCOTT BAIRD: That would have been in late 1963 or early 1964. And then we lose track of it.
KATIE HAFNER: The first time I came across the portrait was when I was looking through the Dorothy Andersen file that Mount Holyoke sent. There was a May 1963 clipping from the hospital’s newsletter, which was called The Stethoscope News. The announcement reads: “Posthumous honors continue for Dr. Dorothy H. Andersen, the unassuming woman pathologist-physician credited with awakening the medical world to the existence of Cystic Fibrosis.”
There’s the evidence we’ve been looking for: Dorothy Andersen mattered to Columbia.
Next to this caption is a photograph of three men standing near the unveiled portrait. The men are Frank Slater (that’s the artist), then there’s the former CF Foundation president, and the dean of Columbia’s medical school.
This newspaper clipping gives you the sense that there was actually some fanfare surrounding the portrait—that it was in fact a valued gift to the hospital. Cue my astonishment when Scott told me he couldn’t find it anywhere.
KATIE HAFNER: Were you surprised that the portrait was like nowhere to be seen?
SCOTT BAIRD: No. Um, I was a med student at Columbia Presbyterian in the eighties, early eighties. And because in the 30 to 40 years since then I've witnessed the massive changes to the building that have occurred there.
KATIE HAFNER: A lot has changed in the past 40 years. A new building has gone up—expanding the children’s hospital from two connected buildings to three. Much of the inside has changed, too—there’s new equipment and renovated spaces, it all looks different.
SCOTT BAIRD: And, I'm not too surprised that some things have been mislaid, lost, are no longer available. It's enormously unfortunate.
KATIE HAFNER: I mean, what are the next steps here? What, how, how do we keep looking?
SCOTT BAIRD: I'm going to end up probably going to the main campus at some point. I mean, I live 10 blocks from the main campus. I'm going to have to go there at some point and try to track down anything else I can about, about her.
But I don't know. I, this is sort of, it's what actually happens when you start trying to research Dorothy Andersen's life. There's little tiny wisps of something that come into focus quickly and then fade away very quickly. And you're left wondering, how can you pick out the truth in all of this? It's not easy.
KATIE HAFNER: And now that you're witnessing the issue, the topic of the dude wall, um, at medical institutions, you know, firsthand, what do you think?
SCOTT BAIRD: As you can tell, I've been doing this now at Columbia for a few decades and I'm, I think I have, incorporated [laughs] some of the attitudes of the system. So I expect there to be a lot of dead white men up on a wall, their portraits. That, that doesn't seem unusual to me. That's what I've become used to. Is that wrong? Well, that's a bigger discussion, but yes, I would say that's, that's got to change. I would just say, um, Dorothy Andersen deserves more.
KATIE HAFNER: That bigger discussion is taking place now at a lot of medical schools and teaching hospitals. Two doctors, former Yale medical students, have made the reform of the dude walls their mission.
We spoke with Dr. Nientara Anderson—no relation to Dorothy Andersen, by the way. She’s now a psychiatry resident at Yale. And Dr. Lizzy Fitzsousa, who’s now a resident in emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins. They were both classmates at Yale Medical School a couple of years ago and they decided to investigate how students felt about the very white and very male portraiture hanging on the walls of the university.
First, here’s Lizzy Fitzsousa:
LIZZY FITZSOUSA: When you walk into Sterling Hall of Medicine, it's like the only, like, really grand building at the medical school. Everything else is very utilitarian. So it has this, like, very high ceilings and there's, I don't know, some sort of marble or stone floor, and you walk through and there's sort of all these gilt framed oil portraits. But very monolithic. It was just white dude after white dude.
KATIE HAFNER: Nientara Anderson had a similar reaction.
NIENTARA ANDERSON: And it immediately for me set the tone of, right, I need to be on my guard here.
I avoided the medical school library. I studied at every other library other than the medical school library on purpose. And that was a really conscious decision because I hated being there and I didn't feel comfortable sitting there and trying to study, um, and focus with these men hanging, literally hanging, over my head.
Speaking from my own background, I grew up in Sri Lanka. It's a formerly colonized nation. So when I see a portrait of a white man from a colonial era—whether it's the UK or America, it doesn't really matter—um, I feel all of those feelings that I feel about European colonization are wrapped up and come flooding into me in that moment.
KATIE HAFNER: It’s clear to me that in the course of this expedition to find Andersen’s portrait, we’ve tapped into an inquiry into the nature and impact of portraiture itself.
Isn’t a portrait the epitome of memorializing and honoring important figures in our history? If we want to ask why someone like Andersen doesn’t have the recognition she deserves, we need to be having conversations about these ways of remembering, and who gets to be included. It’s no coincidence that a person missing from these walls is also missing from our collective memory.
At Yale, Lizzy Fitzsousa and Nientara Anderson came up with a plan to look more closely at the effects of the school’s portraiture—one that academia could swallow.
LIZZY FITZSOUSA: We felt that creating a study, a research study, that would use the scientific process, use a qualitative method to create data out of these, these feelings and these experiences that people had would be, um, the currency that we needed to further this conversation.
KATIE HAFNER: So the two doctors interviewed their peers, asking them a series of questions about their professional, personal and visceral reactions to the university’s portraiture. Here’s Nientara Anderson again.
NIENTARA ANDERSON: Someone said, I think if these portraits could speak, they would not be so excited about me. They might spit at me.
LIZZY FITZSOUSA: This interviewee said, “Why don't we have the first black physician at Yale up there? That's a huge feat. Or the first woman physician at Yale. Why don't we have the first female chief of surgery? I know it's much more present, but that's a huge f***ing deal.”
It's just like we stopped honoring people when it was no longer just majority white men in medicine. And I think that's problematic too.
KATIE HAFNER: Some students saw the portraits as a sign that they didn’t belong, others felt like they had no choice but to cope with “dude walls,” still others felt like the dude walls represented Yale’s true values. And then, a small minority expressed fear that changing these portraits might somehow erase an important part of the school’s history. But just how important a role did those white dudes play?
Dr. Anna Reisman is a professor of medicine at Yale. She advised Dr. Fitzsousa and Dr. Anderson on their study.
ANNA REISMAN: Thanks to our, um, medical historical librarian, she found out that a lot of the portraits were just put up because there was a centenary, in the early, early 20th century. And for the celebration, people were asked to find portraits and to just, they were just kind of putting them up, cause I guess the walls didn't have much going on at that point.
So these, you know, people were like literally pulling out old portraits from their attics. Like, so many of these have a very, very tenuous connection. Like they're not, like, they didn't do something that was so great that they deserve to be honored on the walls.
It's really kind of haphazard.
KATIE HAFNER: Haphazard? Pulling any old portraits from their attics? I was more than a little surprised to hear this. How could anyone be arguing that these portraits represent the school in any way? They were curated all but randomly, by a group of people putting together some centenary festivities in 1914. Then those portraits just stayed there. Yale has celebrated these men because they’re on the wall, not the other way around.
NIENTARA ANDERSON: They just have been there and they're comfortable letting them be there. And they haven't really taken into account how they affect nonwhite people or women.
KATIE HAFNER: At the end of the interview with Lizzy Fitzsousa and Nientara Anderson, we told them the story of Dorothy Andersen’s portrait—about its strange disappearance and how we couldn’t find anyone who had a clue where it might be.
NIENTARA ANDERSON: Well, the story actually reminds me, I'm sure you're thinking of the same thing, Lizzie. Um, that story reminds me a lot about something very similar that actually happened at Yale. Uh, like in 2015, when I first got there, there was this small, wrinkled, water damaged photograph of a woman that was kind of tucked away, literally a door opened in front of it. So most of the time you couldn't even see it because the door to a room opened onto it, basically. Right?
KATIE HAFNER: That photo is Dorothy Horstmann—yes, another Dorothy. She was a research scientist, epidemiologist, virologist and the first female professor at Yale Medical School. That’s a big f---ing deal.
NIENTARA ANDERSON: And it was only during the research done by the committee for the, on portraits at the med school that we discovered, kind of rediscovered this portrait that it was actually Dorothy Horstmann. And so it just kind of reminds me of this way that a female scientist, a female physician, um, was kind of vanished, you know, like a portrait was created, but then forgotten, you know, a portrait was created, but then hidden.
KATIE HAFNER: Dr. Lizzy Fitzsousa has grappled with the importance of the work she does taking on portraiture at wealthy institutions. It feels far removed from the big issues of structural racism and sexism. But exclusion and discrimination permeate everything, even in seemingly small ways that make life just that much harder.
LIZZY FITZSOUSA: It's so easy to change, you know, it's like, it's the flip of it. It's so easy to take down a portrait, you know, it's so easy to undo that, and I think that's something that we should just recognize that if you're feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work there is left to do, this is, this is a place that you could do something about it. Like today, tomorrow.
KATIE HAFNER: In the past year or so, the art at Yale Medical School has, in fact, changed. Many of the old portraits have been taken down or moved to a less conspicuous place. And new exhibits have been put up, like one that features photographs of the female faculty and staff who work there. But there’s still more to do.
So we asked these two doctors what they want to see happen next.
NIENTARA ANDERSON: I think a good place to start is to take them all down and have a moment of, to just think, right? To live with the blank space for a little while, and think about how you, what you want your walls to look like.
KATIE HAFNER: I’m Katie Hafner and this is Lost Women of Science.
SCOTT BAIRD: This is a follow-up to my search for Dorothy Andersen's portrait at Columbia University Medical Center. And I’m going to the 17th floor of the hospital, which is the offices for the pediatric department administration.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Scott again. And we’re back at Columbia.
SCOTT BAIRD: I'm one of the pediatric intensivists.
STAFF MEMBER: Mm-hmm.
SCOTT BAIRD: I was looking to see, I've been, we’re doing a biography of Dorothy Andersen. I was looking to see if her portrait was around here?
STAFF MEMBER: I’m not sure, if it’s in the conference room?
SCOTT BAIRD: It's not in a conference room.
STAFF MEMBER: Did you check both? Did you check both? There’s two of them, there’s a small and a large. This is...
SCOTT BAIRD: The one on the right.
STAFF MEMBER: Yeah.
KATIE HAFNER: The staff member you’re hearing is showing Scott the conference rooms on the 17th floor of the old Presbyterian Hospital…
SCOTT BAIRD: Oh, let me just check on the walls right here.
STAFF MEMBER: Sure, yeah.
KATIE HAFNER: ...which houses the pediatric department administrative offices.
KATIE HAFNER: Once again, Scott came up empty-handed. The portrait was still out of our grasp. But, we didn’t stop looking. We turned to everyone we could think of who might know something.
KATIE HAFNER: We asked the head archivist at Mount Holyoke if she had seen it.
LESLIE FIELDS: I have not.
KATIE HAFNER: We asked Celia Ores, Dr. Andersen’s mentee. She seemed to remember it...
CELIA ORES: It was taken away.
KATIE HAFNER: ...but had no new information. We asked the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. They couldn’t confirm anything. And we went to Columbia’s archives.
KYLIE TANGONAN: There are no portraits of women at all.
KATIE HAFNER: They had a photocopy of the portrait, but that was it...
KYLIE TANGONAN: No, there's absolutely nothing on the back of this photograph.
KATIE HAFNER: We tried to get in touch with Frank Slater’s family because we learned that portraits are sometimes returned to the original artist. We never heard back.
We got in touch with the head of Columbia’s art properties and he wrote back, finally, saying that “With regard to art, we have no connection with whatever art was in the hospital in the past or now. ”
And he was right. We were barking up the wrong tree. We needed to call the hospital itself.
I got on the phone with Alexandra Langan, who’s in the media relations department at New York Presbyterian Columbia, and I told her the sad saga of the missing portrait and we bonded over our admiration for Dorothy Andersen and for this search itself.
ALEXANDRA LANGAN: So yeah, let me, let me do some digging.
KATIE HAFNER: Wouldn't it be great if it was sitting in a closet?
ALEXANDRA LANGAN: That would be wonderful. I am going to mobilize.
KATIE HAFNER: Oh, good. I'm so, I'm so glad I talked to you.
KATIE HAFNER: But, in the end, that didn’t pan out. We later got in touch with a number of administrators, doctors, and faculty at Columbia. They all jumped to help us, but they couldn’t find the portrait either. We were back where we started. And we were frustrated.
The portraits at Columbia Medical Center aren’t part of the university’s art collection. They often aren’t curated, and, so when moved or taken down, their whereabouts sometimes aren’t known. We couldn’t find anyone officially keeping track of these portraits, so things slip through the cracks.
When a portrait hanging in a hospital gets taken down, where could it end up? Back in the archives, unaccounted for? Or taken to a private house somewhere, hanging over someone’s fireplace? Or propped against a wall in a basement?
I don’t know what the best—or worst--case scenario would be. But portrait curation can be pretty random, as we’ve learned, so—
SCOTT BAIRD: I would be very surprised if we were able to come up with it.
And, and that also is sort of the answer to: why am I writing this biography? Or why am I spending so much time on this? And why are you doing these podcasts and what motivates us to do this? I, personally, in large part it's because I think people don't really know the debt that we owe Dorothy Andersen.
KATIE HAFNER: In our next and final episode, we take a look at the legacy of Dorothy Andersen and cystic fibrosis—how far we’ve come in the 58 years since her death.
This has been Lost Women of Science. Thanks to everyone who made this initiative happen, including my co-executive producer Amy Scharf, senior producer Tracy Wahl, associate producer Sophie McNulty, composer Elizabeth Younan, and technical director Abdullah Rufus. We’re grateful to Jane Grogan, Mike Fung, Susan Kare, Scott Baird, Brian McTear, Alison Gwinn, Bob Wachter, Nora Mathison, Robin Linn, Matt Engel, Cathie Bennett Warner, Maria Klawe, Jeannie Stivers, Nikaline McCarley, Bijal Trivedi, and our interns, Kylie Tangonan, Baiz Hoen and Ella Zaslow. Thanks also to the Mount Holyoke Archives for helping with our search, to Paula Goodwin, Nicole Schilling and the rest of the legal team at Perkins Coie, and to Harvey Mudd College, a leader in exemplary STEM education. We’re also grateful to Barnard College, a leader in empowering young women to pursue their passions in STEM as well as the arts, for support during the Barnard Year of Science.
Thanks to Emily Quirk and Jim Schachter at New Hampshire Public Radio, where this podcast was recorded.
Lost Women of Science is funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and the John Templeton Foundation, which catalyzes conversations about living purposeful and meaningful lives.
This podcast is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.
Thank you so much for listening, I’m Katie Hafner.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]