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Dr. Deborah Elizabeth Powell

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1939

Medical School

Tufts University School of Medicine



Career Path

Administration: Medical school deans
Diagnostic and therapeutic services: Pathology
Dr. Deborah Elizabeth Powell


I became a doctor for several reasons: In high school I enjoyed sciences, especially biology; I had considered becoming a nurse because I was interested in health care, but was very interested in the idea of a profession which provided help and support to people. Ultimately I decided that I would more challenged by a career as a physician. I made this decision while I was still in high school, and although I briefly considered a career as a teacher, I really never deviated from this decision while I was in college.


In her role as executive dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Kansas, Deborah E. Powell, M.D., instituted the Professionalism Initiative to foster the "preservation of true medical professionalism that not only embraces science and technology, but also the human element."

Deborah Powell was born on in 1939, in Lynn, Massachusetts. She graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College with a bachelor of arts degree in Latin and English, then spent a year at the University of Gothenburg School of Medicine in Sweden. She obtained her M.D. from Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston in 1965. She completed her internship in pathology at Georgetown University Medical Center , followed by a three-year residency at the National Cancer Institute's Pathologic Anatomy Branch. Dr. Powell was an assistant professor, then associate professor, at Georgetown before being made director of Diagnostic Pathology at the University of Kentucky in 1976. While teaching at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, she was a three-time winner of the American Medical Students Association's Golden Apple Award, in 1979, 1981, and 1982. She was promoted to departmental vice-chair and full professor of pathology in 1980. In 1988, she was named chair of the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

In April 1997, Dr. Powell was named executive dean of the University of Kansas School of Medicine and vice chancellor for Clinical Affairs. One of her most exciting innovations has been the introduction of the Professionalism Initiative to foster the integration of the art and science of medicine. Powell believes "Good medicine must be a balance of high tech and high touch. Good science can be taught, but the art of medicine must be modeled."

When Dr. Deborah Powell was named president of the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology (USCAP) in 2000, Dr. Fred Silva, executive director of the Academy described it as a "tremendous...well deserved honor." USCAP is the oldest pathology association in North America and the largest of the International Academy of Pathology's fifty-four worldwide divisions. Silva noted that Powell "has been involved in every aspect of academic medicine and she is a respected national leader. You could say, 'She has done it all.' " In October 2002, Dr. Powell was made dean of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine.

Debra Powell was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 2000, was an elected trustee of the American Board of Pathology, and was a member of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Women in Medicine Coordinating Committee from 1992 to 1995. She has also been a member of the National Institutes of Health's Advisory Council, Office of Research on Women's Health, since 1999.

Question and Answer

What was your biggest obstacle?

I really cannot remember any obstacles either in college or in applying to or getting admitted to medical school. When I was applying for residencies, I looked initially at residency training in internal medicine and remember being told at that time that as a married woman I could not apply for a medicine residency on the Osler Service at Johns Hopkins Hospital because they did not accept married women as residents on that service. I did not formally apply to Johns Hopkins and in fact did training in pathology, but it was the first time I could remember being told that I could not do something because I was female and married.

How do you make a difference?

My career has always been in academic medicine, and I believe that I can make the biggest difference by developing innovative educational programs for future physicians. I am very interested in medical education, both at the undergraduate and residency level and believe that we need to change our medical education system dramatically. I would like to think that by devising a rational system for educating the physicians of the 21st century that I can make my biggest contribution to health care for the largest number of patients.

Who was your mentor?

I have had a number of mentors in my career. First of all several, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein and Dr. Al Rabson, who were my teachers during my pathology residency and research training at the National Institutes of Health, and served not only as outstanding mentors but as excellent role models. My first Department Chair, Dr. Abner Golden was an outstanding mentor who really gave me opportunities to become involved with medical education and inspired me with his commitment to the education of medical students. Other mentors were Drs. William Hartmann and Ramzi Cotran who were strong mentors to me as I moved into academic administration. There have been a very large number of other mentors and role models who have played a role in developing my career at different points in time, probably too numerous to mention here.

How has your career evolved over time?

My career has really evolved without a systematic plan. I had originally planned to go into pediatrics or internal medicine. I began training in pathology because I was expecting my first child, and decided that I would do a year of pathology before pursuing an internal medicine residency. However, I was intrigued by pathology, particularly surgical pathology and continued pathology residency training at the National Institutes of Health where I was first exposed to research as well as clinical training. I accepted a faculty position following residency training and enjoyed academic practice; combining education, clinical service and research. I ultimately became Vice-Chair of the Department when my Department Chair asked me to assume that role, and when he retired, was encouraged by my faculty to seek the position of Department Chair, something I would not have ordinarily done. I pursued the position of Dean of a Medical School after being a Department Chair for almost ten years because I wanted to do more in medical education and felt that leading a Medical School would allow me to accomplish that. All in all, my career has been extremely satisfying, and although it was not planned I would not change anything about it.