In Memoriam: Helen M. Ranney, M.D.

From Kenneth Kaushansky, MD
Helen M. Ranney Distinguished Professor and Chair, Department of Medicine

Dear Friends,

Helen M. Ranney, M.D.It is with a very heavy heart that I write to report the Department of Medicine, the School of Medicine, the University and the entire San Diego community have lost a great friend and leader. Dr. Helen Ranney, research and clinical hematologist extraordinaire, pioneering Chair of Medicine and professional society president, and soaring intellect has passed away last night, just a week before her 90th birthday.

Helen was born and raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York, to parents who stimulated her to seek a professional career. While setting out on pre-law studies at Barnard College, she soon found she liked “working with people” and “fixing what you studied,” redirecting her efforts towards pre-medical studies. While initially declined admission to medical school, Helen sought out research training, and was then admitted to Columbia School of Medicine, eventually studying hematology under the direction of Dr. Irving London.

In 1953, Helen determined a method to separate normal from abnormal hemoglobin and used this to identify mixed hemoglobins in the relatives of children with sickle cell anemia, laying the foundation for the genetic basis of this and other “hemoglobinopathies.” For this and other work, Helen was awarded the Martin Luther King Medical Achievement Award soon after the great civil rights leader’s death.

Helen’s work next took her to the faculty of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and then the State University of New York in Buffalo. 1973 was a good year for San Diego, and a good year for Helen; in that year Helen was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and was recruited to UC San Diego, to serve as the first female Chair of a University Department of Medicine.

During her tenure at UC San Diego, Helen led the Department to scientific and clinical excellence. She also played an important role on the national academic stage, serving as President of the American Society of Hematology, and as the first female president of the prestigious Association of American Physicians.

Helen then served as the first female “Distinguished Physician” of the Veterans Affairs medical centers, and upon her retirement, the Helen M. Ranney Chair was established, the first Endowed Chair at UC San Diego named after a female professor.

Helen’s career was marked by her intelligent approach to both clinical and research issues, her ability to achieve and inspire greatness, and her incredible wit. It is my great honor and privilege to serve as the Helen M. Ranney Professor, arguably the very best “perk” available to the Chair of our Department!

Everyone has a favorite Helen story, and I am no exception. It occurred soon after my arrival as the fourth Chair of the Department. Then Dean Dr. Edward Holmes held a reception, thanking Dr. Roger Spragg for his recent service as Interim Chair, and welcoming me to my new post. Soon after arriving in San Diego, while moving into our new house, I fell from a ladder and broke my arm, the cast drying just in time for Ed’s reception. Needless to say, a fresh coat of plaster on the new Chair called for an explanation.

By now I was surrounded by Deans, Vice Deans, Vice and Associate Chancellors, Chairs, a plethora of other leaders, and Helen, telling my story: “…as soon as I fell, the arm was clearly misshapen, but for some reason, it didn’t seem to hurt…. then Lauren brought me to the Hillcrest Hospital emergency room, and by holding the arm, it didn’t hurt…..then the orthopedic surgeon came down to the emergency room, and gave me Brevitol to reduce the fracture, and it didn’t hurt…” whereupon Helen declared, “Oh, it must be Tabes Dorsalis (a neurological deterioration that blocks painful stimuli, due to advanced syphilis)!”

Thanks, Helen!

Helen M. Ranney has served as a role model for countless women and men of medicine and science, all attempting to emulate her warmth, teaching style, inquisitiveness and impact on her field. She inspired many to take on the great responsibility of leadership and to carry on the tradition of innovation in medicine that is the UC San Diego Department of Medicine. I’ll always remember her as an intelligent and inventive mover and shaker in American academic medicine. Truly, thank you, Helen!

Kenneth Kaushansky, MD, MACP
Helen M. Ranney Distinguished Professor and Chair, Department of Medicine

Photo of Dr. Ranney, above, from the National Library of Medicine.