Marian Wilkins Ropes, M.D., once commented that the art of medicine is a subtle one, and more difficult to learn than any volume of medical data. As a trained chemist and esteemed scientist she was well-known for her laboratory skills, but over thirty years as a professor at Harvard Medical School and as a clinician at Massachusetts General Hospital she also built an impressive reputation for her teaching and patient care.
Marian Wilkins was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1903. She became interested in studying medicine while attending Smith College from 1920 to 1924, where she earned a chemistry degree. She continued her studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, completing a master's degree in chemistry in 1926. After graduation, she worked as a laboratory technician in the biochemistry lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she worked with a small group of researchers. In less than a year, she decided to expand her horizons and enroll in medical school. After receiving her doctor of medicine degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1931, she returned to Massachusetts General Hospital in 1932 as the first woman medical resident in the institution's history.
Dr. Ropes's affiliation with Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital and the medical school continued throughout her professional life. In 1947, she was the first woman appointed assistant professor of clinical medicine at Harvard Medical School. She later became an associate professor of clinical medicine and ultimately, professor emeritus. Dr. Ropes was admired by colleagues and students alike as a talented and intelligent clinician, researcher, lecturer, and teacher.
Dr. Ropes's research focused on various kinds of rheumatic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and the role of synovial fluid in joint diseases. After more than a decade of clinical work that resulted in extensive publications, Dr. Ropes and her well-respected colleague, Dr. Walter Bauer, published Synovial Fluid: Changes in Joint Disease in 1953. The book, which became a standard reference text in the field, was based on the analysis of samples from over 1500 patients suffering from a wide range of diseases. The analysis illustrated how the chemical and cellular composition of the joint fluid (known as synovial fluid) changed in response to a variety of diseases. Ropes and Bauer also discussed how these changes could be used to diagnose different disease and the prognosis for the patient.
Over the course of her career, Dr. Ropes also became a renowned expert on systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Lupus is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system loses the ability to differentiate between healthy cells and foreign substances. The disease especially affects the skin, joints, blood, and the kidneys, and can be painful and even life-threatening. In 1976, Ropes published her last major work, studying 142 patients with SLE who had been tracked for thirty-four years.