Dr. Virginia Kneeland Frantz is remembered as a surgical pathologist and an innovative teacher, and her work both in the laboratory and the classroom earned her numerous awards. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, she made a series of discoveries regarding the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid, breast, and pancreatic tumors, and in 1959 she published an account of pancreatic tumors for the Armed Forces Atlas of Tumor Pathology that soon became the standard text on the subject.
Virginia Kneeland was born in New York City on 13 November 1896. Her parents, Yale and Anna Ilsley Ball Kneeland, came from upper class New York families and ran a dairy farm in Vermont, where her father also had a successful grain business. Her mother served on the Board of Trustees of the Presbyterian Hospital. Virginia Kneeland had an excellent secondary education at the Brearly School in New York City, and then attended Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in chemistry, graduating first in her class in 1918. The college president, M. Carey Thomas, advised her to pursue a career in medicine, so she applied to the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, which had begun admitting women the year before due to the wartime decline in male students. Kneeland was one of five women in a class of seventy-four students.
In 1920, she married fellow student Angus Macdonald Frantz. They had three children over the next ten years, but with domestic help, Kneeland was able to carry on with her training and medical practice. She graduated in 1922, second in her class, and took up a surgical internship at the Presbyterian Hospital. She was the first woman surgery intern at the Columbia University-affiliated hospital. In 1924, she became assistant surgeon in the outpatient department.
Dr. Frantz left her clinical post in 1927 to work in the Presbyterian Hospital Surgical Pathology Laboratory, where she studied tumor pathology of the pancreas, the breast, and the thyroid. In 1935, Frantz, with surgeon Allen O. Whipple, was the first to describe the insulin-secretion of pancreatic tumors. She was also one of the first to prove the usefulness of radioactive iodine in the diagnosis and treatment of metastatic thyroid cancer. In 1959, she wrote on tumors of the pancreas for the Armed Forces Atlas of Tumor Pathology. Her study quickly became the standard text on the subject. During World War II, she studied the control of bleeding during surgery with Dr. Raffaele Lattes, leading to the discovery of oxidized cellulose as an aid to wound healing that could be absorbed by the body. In 1948, Frantz was recognized for this work by receiving the Army-Navy Certificate of Appreciation for Civilian Service.
From 1924 to 1962, Dr. Frantz taught surgery to second year medical students at her alma mater, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, becoming full professor in 1951. Frantz was a devoted teacher who emphasized learning through experiment. Following the example of her mentor Dr. William C. Clarke at Presbyterian Hospital's Surgical Pathology Laboratory, she promoted the Socratic method of teaching. Recalling Clarke's second year introduction to surgery course, she commented that there was "much more experimental surgery than surgical pathology in the course...also much more philosophic speculation than formal pedagogy, much more art than science, much more fun than work, at least for Dr. Clarke and his students."
Dr. Clarke resigned in 1928, leaving Dr. Frantz and a handful of other teachers to continue his work. In 1941, Frantz and her colleague Dr. Harold D. Harvey published a textbook based on this approach to learning, which was used in a number of other medical schools and was republished in three editions. In the year of her death, 1967, the college awarded her their Bicentennial Silver Medal in recognition of her contributions to medical education and her gift for teaching, and the Medical Board of the Presbyterian Hospital recorded an "expression of loss" in the minutes of their meeting. Their tribute read as follows: "Her individual attention to the evaluation of each student was a model and a stimulus to the succession of younger instructors whom she taught to teach in the second year course. Her searching, yet humorous questions deflated cant and didactic presumption, and constantly challenged her students to replace rote memory with constructive and critical thought. Her retirement in 1962did not dim her interest and scarcely modified her activity through the ensuing three years she served as special lecturer. Only advancing illness took her from us. With her passing begins the end of a notable transitional epoch in the department and the school, but the principles she exemplified will continue in those who worked with her, and the many hundreds of doctors she taught."
Her legacy begins with her own familyher son Dr. Andrew G. Frantz is now the associate dean for Admissions at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.