Edith Hendley

Edith Hendley

I am approaching my 90th birthday in a few weeks, finding myself, improbably, still a practicing physiologist. It started when I was a sophomore at Hunter College of the City of New York, when I took my first physiology course and fell in love with our discipline. Over the following seventy or so years since then I have witnessed profound changes in both what we consider physiology and what it has meant to watch the progress of women who enter science careers.

In the 1940’s through 1970’s, courses in physiology included elaborate student 3-hour labs, usually carried out in anesthetized dogs obtained from the animal shelter, where they would otherwise be euthanized. We routinely learned to manage a safe level of anesthesia, to perform tracheotomy, cannulation of major arteries and veins, surgical procedures on the GI tract, brain lesioning, etc. This of course all stopped as animal rights activists eventually prevailed in their fight against the use of animals in the laboratory. Still, those skills were invaluable during the rest of my career.

The physiology course we taught in our medical schools until very recently consisted of lectures based on the system of the body: cardiovascular, respiratory, GI, endocrinology, reproduction, renal, central nervous system etc. Graduate students were enrolled in the same course as the medical students. Today, we teach the physiology of a particular organ as part of an integrated curriculum that includes its anatomy, gross and micro, imaging, pharmacology, cell and molecular biology, embryology and pathophysiology. In my medical school, the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine, we are phasing out lectures completely and by 2020 all of our preclinical training, including the physiology component, will be interactive as well as integrative, as indeed we are even converting our traditional classroom seating to small group tables of eight students working at their tablets. Our graduate students on the other hand do continue learning physiology in a traditional lecture-based course, separate from the medical course.

Departments of Physiology such as mine no longer recruit faculty that bear any resemblance to those recruited in the past. Mine now consists of biophysicists, molecular biologists, structural biologists, x-ray crystallographers, cryo- electron microscopists, and yeast geneticists rather than the blood-and-guts physiologists I “grew up” with in my career. As such, they are not likely to seek membership in the APS, and this is something I feel we have lost.

My own career started out with a master’s degree at Ohio State University where I studied an extract of the adrenal cortex, labeled as “the sodium factor” by my adviser, Frank Hartman, a pioneer in discovering the multiple physiological actions of adrenal cortical extracts. I recorded its effects on sodium excretion in the dog, and learned decades later that the sodium factor I studied was aldosterone.

In those days it was very easy to obtain fellowships for doctoral programs as the sputnik era, post WWII, resulted in generous funding by the federal government to advance science training in the US. One had the pick of many universities eager to recruit returning war veterans on the GI bill as well as any women entering science careers. I chose to study cardiovascular physiology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. My adviser was Dr. Alfred Schiller, who tragically died one year after I received the Ph.D. in his laboratory, studying the role of hypoxemia on capillary permeability.

After marriage and the birth of my 3 children I had no choice but to stay at home with them as no child care was available in those days, and preschool was only available after potty-training. Furthermore, nepotism rules in most universities forbade recruiting husband and wife as faculty, in addition to a not-too-easily disguised practice of avoiding hiring mothers of young children. Despite these barriers for women pursuing academic careers, I was able with household help to work part-time, over a period of about six years, in a sort of perpetual post-doc status, which I never regretted as it kept me academically involved while raising my children. This brought me to a part-time research associateship with Solomon Snyder, a brilliant young neuropharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University College of Medicine in Baltimore, where my husband’s full-time position as a biochemist determined where we would reside and work. In Sol Snyder’s exciting lab I spent 5 years and published eight papers and two book chapters, albeit at half-time, and at a very low salary. This prolific exhilarating period of my life laid the foundations for my lifelong interest in the neurochemistry of catecholamines, and it led to my recruitment to the University of Vermont College of Medicine at a time when the fields of brain neurochemistry and neuroscience were rapidly expanding. Amazingly, I went from the lowest academic rank, a research associateship, to a tenure-track, Associate Professorship, by-passing the ranks of Instructor and Assistant Professor altogether. I attribute this to my beloved former Chair of Physiology at UVM, the late Norman R. Alpert, who was well ahead of his time in promoting the careers of women and racial minorities at a time when both were scarce in academe. After Dr. Alpert’s death, our current chair, David Warshaw, continued valuing my presence in his department, despite the pressures to restrict precious office space to only those generating grant-based overhead income to the university. My contributions to the department currently are the teaching I do in the first year medical curriculum. I no longer conduct grant-based research of my own, but continue to consult on an informal basis in other grant-funded projects.

Over the past twenty or so years I have developed and maintained two inbred strains of rats derived from the spontaneously hypertensive (SHR) rat: one expressing the hypertension of the SHR, without the hyperactivity and reactivity to stress that had inadvertently been inbred along with the hypertensive trait. The other inbred strain developed in my laboratory expresses the behavioral characteristics of the SHR, but not the hypertension, making this an interesting strain for studying hyperactivity and reactivity to stress, their neurochemical correlates, and genetic basis. I was able to make the two strains available to the scientific community when I could no longer maintain them, by donating them for cryopreservation of their embryos at the NIH facility for inbred rat and mouse strains, housed at the University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, Rat Resource and Research Center.

The other aspect of my career that defines me is my participation in promoting the welfare and opportunities for women in science, I was there at the beginning of the modern era of women’s liberation in the early 1970’s, and the few of us who were practicing careers in biological sciences formed the organization that became the Association for Women in Science, AWIS. A gathering of about 30 women biologists founded AWIS during a national meeting of the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB). AWIS made heady progress during the mid-1970’s, with the passage of the Women in Science and Technology Act sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy. Even more effective was the addition of the Higher Education Amendments, Title VII and Title IX, to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts enacted during the Johnson administration. Title VII mandated that women in academe be given the same opportunity and pay in employment decisions, and Title IX guaranteed that women students achieve equality in admissions to academic programs, in athletic facilities, in scholarships, financial aid etc. Any institutions not in compliance with these mandates were subjected to withholding of federal funding and grants, a most effective threat that resulted in the rapid rise in the advancement of women in academe. We felt this keenly in my university. Within a few years, admission of women to the medical school increased from 10% to over 50% in just a few years. Even more dramatically, facilities in the OR were expanded for women students to scrub up in, rather than in the nurses’ quarters where there was no opportunity to interact with the male-only surgical faculty during their training.

At UVM I served on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women; the Women’s Caucus; establishment of the Women’s Center; formation of a chapter of AWIS, etc. It was gratifying to witness the astonishing increase in the number of tenured women in the College of Medicine. We were only four when I joined the faculty in 1973, and now we have women as chairs, deans, even chief residents in surgical specialties!

In closing, I would like to thank the APS for this opportunity to reminisce on the huge changes I have witnessed over 70 years, gratified that we old-timers still have something to contribute to the generations that follow us.