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Dr. Vivian W. Pinn

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1941

Medical School

University of Virginia School of Medicine


District of Columbia

Career Path

Administration: Government
Diagnostic and therapeutic services: Pathology
Dr. Vivian W. Pinn


Dr. Vivian Pinn was the first African American woman to chair an academic pathology department in the United States, at Howard University College of Medicine.
Dr. Vivian Pinn was the first full-time director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Vivian Pinn was the only African American and the only woman in her class to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Medicine.


As long as I can remember I've wanted to be a doctor. I didn't think I'd be the kind of doctor I ended up being, but I've always wanted to be a doctor as far back as I can remember. They tell me that one of the first words I learned how to spell was 'pediatrician,' because when I was a child, around age four, I'm told is when I first started saying I wanted to be a doctor, and my grandmother taught me how to spell pediatrician, and that's what I said I wanted to be.

I think I got the interest in being a doctor because there was illness in my family—I had a grandmother who was diabetic, and I had a grandfather who was suffering from cancer—and I noticed two things. One: when the doctor came to see them, they always seemed to be better. That was in the days when house calls were made, so the doctor came to your home. And it just seemed that whenever the doctor came, they were always better afterwards, and I liked that.

I learned that, at a very early age, that I enjoyed not the suffering, but doing things to help people who were ill feel better.

People say, 'Why did you pick being a doctor?' Well, I guess I didn't see that many nurses, and I saw the doctors who came—although this was in the early forties and there were not many women doctors—and I knew of one woman doctor, but most of the doctors I knew were men.

I'm very grateful to my family, because back then, as an African American child in a Southern town where there were not women physicians and so few women in medicine—my family never told me that was something I couldn't do, they just supported me all the way, and of course told me that I'd have to study hard. I think my family used that to keep me studying and keep me on the right track of preparing for going into medicine, and I set my sights on medicine very early, and I just grew up thinking that was something I wanted to do.


In her role as director of the Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Vivian Pinn had been in the position to ensure that women's health is a high priority at NIH. The appointment heralded the culmination of her lifelong focus on quality healthcare for all. Since retiring from the NIH in 2011, Dr. Pinn has served as a senior scientist emerita at NIH’s Fogarty International Center, and continues to advocate for women’s health and women in medicine.

Vivian Pinn was born in 1941 in Halifax, Virginia and grew up in Lynchburg. The city schools she attended were segregated. From an early age, Pinn knew she wanted to be a doctor even though women doctors 'were almost unheard of.' She had helped care for her grandparents, even administering insulin shots for her grandmother, who had diabetes.

The daughter and granddaughter of teachers, Pinn's family encouraged her to study hard so that she could reach her goals. She earned a scholarship to Wellesley College, and began classes in 1958. During her sophomore year, when she was 19 years old, her mother became ill. She had an undiagnosed bone tumor and by the time it was discovered, cancer had spread through her body. 'I interrupted my career and stayed home with my mother and took care of her 24 hours a day until she died,' Pinn recalled. She returned to college with even more resolve that she wanted to be a physician. 'I wanted to be the kind of physician who paid attention to my patients, and didn't dismiss my patient's complaints—something that has really carried through and I think has been central to my way of thinking and approaching women's health.'

Pinn graduated from Wellesley in 1963 and entered medical school at the University of Virginia, as the only African American and the only woman in her class. She began with plans to become a pediatrician, but during a summer internship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, became especially interested in research. Pinn went on to complete her residency in pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1970, while she was also serving as a teaching fellow at Harvard Medical School.

In 1970, Dr. Pinn joined the faculty of Tufts University School of Medicine, where she also served as assistant dean for Student Affairs. In 1982, she moved to Washington, D.C., to become professor and chair of the department of pathology at Howard University College of Medicine.

In 1991, Dr. Pinn was appointed the first full-time director of the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health.

One of the objectives of the ORWH is to increase the number of women in leadership roles in research and academic institutions. Pinn points out that while more women are entering the field of science, a 'leadership gap' still exists between men and women in research. At ORWH, Pinn helped develop a re-entry program to help trained scientists, both men and women, who had interrupted their careers—due to family responsibilities, for example—to re-establish themselves in their fields.

Dr. Pinn has received numerous awards and honors. She was inducted as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994. In 1995, she received the Elizabeth Blackwell Award from the American Medical Women's Association, and that same year Dr. Pinn was elected to the Institute of Medicine.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

Well, we have had a lot of challenges. But I think probably the most outstanding scientific achievement has been that we—and I don't like to say 'I,' because it's been a mutual effort of my staff and my colleagues at NIH and in the communities, so let me say 'we,' with the idea that I've been a part of it and have been able to take it forward—have been able to demonstrate, and I think convince individuals in both the scientific and the lay community that pursuing issues of women's health is a scientifically directed effort. And not something to be held with disdain, but something to be applauded, because it's helping us to get at the truth in terms of knowledge, scientific knowledge.

It did not take long, I think, with that as our theme, to really win over a number of people who were sort of skeptical about this new effort to address women's health. And while I'll tell you about some of the programs we've put in place, and some of the priorities we've established, and some of the things that we've done, I think central to all of that has been establishing, if you will, the legitimacy of women's health research for this country, and seeing the same kind of attitude being developed or developed in other areas.

How do I make a difference?

We have, I think, played a major role, in helping to define women's health as beyond the reproductive system, which traditionally was how women's health was viewed. Dr. Marianne Legato likes to refer to it as the 'bikini' view of medicine, that obviously referring to the breast and the reproductive system. And we've gone beyond that. To recognize that heart disease is the leading killer of women in this country, something that really was not fully recognized until recently. And for that reason, we have more research looking at heart disease in women, which then hopefully can guide our young medical students, our young nursing students, and our young physicians, as well as more mature physicians, to know that one must counsel women about risk for heart disease and how to modify our behavior, and what kind of medications can help us in prevention of heart disease, so that women are more aware of this as a threat to themselves—not just to their husbands or their fathers.

We've been able to institute a number of programs to help increase career opportunities for women, but at the same time, career opportunities for men, too. Because everything that we fund really relates to both women and men. While our focus is on women, or as the trend seems to be now, to focus on sex and gender issues, sex and gender differences—that is, if you're born male or female, how that affects your physiology, and your system, and you're health as opposed to gender issues, which means the expectations of society of you because you are male or female, or the femaleness and the maleness. And looking at importance of addressing those issues, and at the same time, wanting more to participate in conducting that research.

Who was my mentor?

I really think, looking back on my career and shifting from being a small black girl, as we were called then, in the segregated town of Lynchburg, to the opportunities I've had, that along the way there are so many people who played a role in opening doors, or helping me feel comfortable, or helping me to overcome obstacles. I'd like to say it all came from me and from within me, but that would not be telling the truth. I really had wonderful support from many different sources. And I believe in trying to give credit to those who did.

I really have a problem with those who believe they've gotten where they are only because of who they are or what they've done. Because I know what a difference having someone to just give you advice, or to just be there for you, or to just be able to hear you talk if you have a problem, and maybe help you think through it yourself. What a difference that can make in terms of personal development and professional development.

And I have benefited from so many people—from not all just professional people, but people who were around, or were just in the community, or members of family, as well as others who were in professional positions.

Mentorship is important to me, and my two points to young people are: overcome barriers and exceed expectations of those who may not expect much of you; and have a mentor and be a mentor.

As I was coming along, I'm not sure some of the people who were mentors for me realized they were mentors.

As I got out into medical school, I had important mentors who were almost all men, because there were so few women. So few women who were in medicine, or who were in senior positions. I was very fortunate to have men who were in the field of medicine who both supported what I was doing, as well as served as role models, and who gave me advice, and who guided me, who really served as mentors for me.

How has my career evolved over time?

I've always spent time outside and in addition to my regular job in pathology trying to promote the interest of women, trying to promote the interest of minorities, talking about the importance of research. I started back as a teenager thinking I wanted to do research—here is an opportunity for me to go be a part of this wonderful institution, the National Institutes of Health, and I remember driving home smiling to myself, thinking: Ah. Maybe this is a career change that could be dangerous for me if it doesn't work out, but I should be open to new opportunities; and what better time when you've got a director of NIH who is in support of women's health; you've got a Congress that's supportive; you've got just the world right, right now, to look at women's health—why not.

So I went home and I called my dean that I was working for and said, "I've got this opportunity to go to NIH; I think I might do it." And that was it. Within an hour I had decided I was going to try it. And I came at first on leave, and I have been here for twelve years.

So I've shifted from a desire to be a pediatrician, to becoming a pathologist, and a renal pathologist, and a transplant pathologist, to being in administrative pathology, overseeing a program and a training program in the department, to then becoming, someone in government who is into establishing policy, carrying out policy. But I still think my knowledge and my years of experience, because it's been over thirty years in pathology—and I think my exposure to the full breadth of human diseases and human and scientific concepts, and my experience as a basic science researcher as well as a clinical researcher has contributed to what my conception of women's health should be, and hopefully has had a positive impact on just how we have developed programs.

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