Dr. Helen Ranney's landmark research during the 1950s was some of the earliest proof of a link between genetic factors and sickle cell anemia. She went on to become the first woman to chair the department of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and was the first woman president of the Association of American Physicians from 1984 to 1985.
Helen Ranney was born in 1920 and grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York. Her father, a farmer with an inventive streak, and her mother, a teacher, instilled in her a "hands-on" approach to life and hoped she would have a professional career. She entered Barnard College as a pre-law student, but switched to pre-medicine because she enjoyed applying science to human life. "I like people and dealing with people...economists, sociologists, and the like study things you can't fix, even if you could find out what was wrong. Medicine attempts to fix what it studies."
After graduating cum laude from Barnard College, she applied to Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) in 1941, but was rejected. Taking a job as a laboratory technician at New York's Babies Hospital, she gained skills that later helped her in her research. When she reapplied to P&S during World War II, she was acceptedthe school was admitting more women while men were away serving in the military. She received her M.D. in 1947 and continued her association with P&S and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center through her training and early professional years. Dr. Ranney was admired for her patient care and teaching as well as for her research, and was known for her intelligence and insight, warmth and wit.
Dr. Ranney is best known for her biochemical discoveries. During her postdoctoral training in hematology (the scientific study of blood) under Dr. Irving London, she devised a way to distinguish the normal molecular structure of human hemoglobin (the iron-rich pigment in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to other tissues) from an abnormal structure associated with sickle-cell anemia, a disease that predominantly affects African Americans. Compairing hemoglobin healthy people with relatives who had sickle-cell disease, Dr. Ranney was one of the first to identify a genetic factor in the disease. In 1972 she was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medical Achievement Award for her work in hemoglobin chemistry.
She continued her work on hemoglobin at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, where she was made professor in 1965 and at the State University of New York, Buffalo. In 1973 she accepted the chair of the Department of Medicineat the University of California, San Diego in 1973. The same year she was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.
In recommending her for chair at the University of California, San Diego, Dean Paul Marks described her as "one of the nation's outstanding investigators of hemoglobinopathies" (diseases or abnormalities of the iron-containing pigment in red blood cells) and "an outstanding clinician and a superb teacher...a person of the highest integrity and quality."
When she left the University of California, San Diego, in 1991, the university established an endowed chair in her name. The Helen M. Ranney Chair in Medicine was the first research chair at the medical school named after a professor, the first endowed chair funded by the faculty, and the first endowed chair at USCD named in honor of a woman professor.
Dr. Ranney served as president of the American Society of Hematology and was the first woman to be president of the Association of American Physicians from 1984 to 1985. After her retirement from the University of California, from 1986 to 1991 she was a Distinguished Physician of the Veterans Administrations, the first woman ever appointed to that position.
Ranney became a board member, advisor, and consultant to the Alliance Pharmaceutical Corporation in San Diego in 1991, where she focused on medical uses of fluorocarbons, especially as carriers for oxygen. She also worked to provide medical care for under-served populations, particularly those living along the U.S.-Mexican border.