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Lab Coats Rock

New Orleans women take science seriously

Pediatrician Sandra Robinson

Craig Mulcahy Photographs

Sandra Robinson’s route to becoming a pediatrician may have begun with a friend’s father who was a doctor with his own clinic. “I even went on a visit when they moved from New Orleans to California,” she says.

Robinson’s undergraduate and medical degrees are from Howard University in Washington, D.C.. After practicing pediatrics in Washington, D.C. and later in California, she returned home with her former husband, also a physician.

Robinson took a detour into the public sector, first managing clinics for the New Orleans Health Foundation, then in management at Charity Hospital. Ultimately she served as Secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Human Resources before returning to private practice.

 “I think the best thing you can do for kids – and I include my own two children – is to make sure they know they can do anything they want to.” Robinson says.

Dr. Elizabeth “Terry” Fontham grew up in Crowley, Louisiana. Stricken with polio at the age of 7, (“in the year before the vaccine,”) she was hospitalized in Baton Rouge while her grandfather was dying of stomach cancer.

Fortunately Fontham recovered. She received a Master’s degree at Louisiana State University and a doctorate at Tulane University in epidemiology,and has “been a cancer epidemiologist ever since.”

“My career has been a real joy,” she says. On the faculty of the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans for 35 years, she’s the founding Dean of LSU’s School of Public Health. Her research work has involved cancer studies.

“We put the lid on tobacco companies’ insistence that secondhand smoke could not kill. That led to big policy decisions, which led to cleaner indoor air,” she says. The problem of cancer “will never be solved by any one person,” Fontham says. “Every time somebody I know is diagnosed with cancer, I take it personally.”

In 1966, the Associated Press sent out a New Orleans story along with a picture: “Mrs. Harriet Joan Aguiar, a green-eyed blonde who could well rate as a pin-up girl for Viet Nam servicemen … is a scientist at Tulane University in New Orleans” working on a malaria cure.

Times change.

Harriet Aguiar-Netto (her second husband was the late Rene Netto) says, “They’d never describe someone as a ‘pretty blonde’ today!”

With her Tulane doctorate in Organic Chemistry, she continued doing research, married, had children and taught science at the Louise S. McGehee School, St. Martin’s Episcopal School (where she became Head of the Upper School) and Isidore Newman School (where she taught Advanced Placement Chemistry).

Aguiar-Netto was honored with two summers of research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, working with Noble Prize-winner Dr. George Smoot.

She takes great pride in her students’ success: “When I have a mammogram, the radiologist who reads it was one of my girl students, and one of my fondest memories is of watching television Carnival night when they announced that the Queen of Comus was majoring in Engineering – and she was a student of mine!”

Elinor McCloskey Frantz grew up in a pharmacist’s household, so it was no surprise when she chose that profession. Her father, John McCloskey, was Dean of the College of Pharmacy at Loyola University, where Frantz received her degree – as one of five women in the class of 1953.

“When we graduated, we took the state boards (licensing exam) the next week.” She went to work at Metairie Hospital as hospital pharmacist. After marriage to the late architect Phares Frantz, she raised her children and then, deciding to get back into pharmacy, was offered a job at Charity Hospital. “I was a staff pharmacist there for 17 years.”

Frantz’s three daughters followed their mother into science: One is a doctor at a pediatric burn center in Baton Rouge and the other two are nurses.  

 Today, women choosing science isn’t surprising – and that’s good news!

 

 

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