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Dr. Selma Harrison Calmes

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1940

Medical School

Baylor College of Medicine



Career Path

Diagnostic and therapeutic services: Anesthesiology
Dr. Selma Harrison Calmes


Dr. Selma Calmes is a co-founder of the Anesthesia History Association.


I became a doctor because of my experience having polio in 1948. Although no doctor figure from that experience comes to mind, I knew I wanted to help sick people (preferably children), as I had been helped. Most of my help was from female nurses and physical therapists, so I'm not sure how the idea of being a doctor came to me. No women doctors ever cared for me then.


Dr. Selma Calmes began her career in anesthesiology in the 1960s when there were few women in the specialty and women physicians were expected to choose between having a career or raising a family. To do both, she has drawn inspiration from the experiences of other women in medicine and is one of the founders of the Anesthesia History Association.

Selma Harrison was born in 1940 in Fort Mills, Corregidor, in Manila Bay. Her father had graduated from West Point military academy in 1935, and was commanding a mine sweeper based in Corregidor when she was born. Her parents had met en route to the Phillipines, but the whole family returned to the United States in 1940. Just four years later, her father was killed in the Normandy Invasion during World War II, leaving her mother to raise three young children alone. She eventually went into teaching to support the family.

Despite the financial hardships faced by her family, and their prestigious history of men in the military, Selma Harrison was not expected to use her college education to build a career but instead to settle down and get married. However, attending Pomona College in Claremont, California, on a scholarship, she was encouraged to aim high academically. There were role models amongst the women faculty members even though none of them taught in the sciences.

Selma Harrison and her two brothers suffered from polio as children, and the help she had received during her own illness became her inspiration to study medicine to help others, even though she had never heard of a woman doctor. She applied to Baylor College of Medicine in 1957 and was accepted as one of three women in a class of eighty-four. The atmosphere in medical school was very confrontational, especially for the women students, and she faced harassment and intimidation by faculty and fellow students almost daily. In the summer after her first year she married a classmate, becoming Selma Harrison Calmes in 1958.

Dr. Calmes graduated in 1965, and began an internship in pediatrics at a hospital affiliated with Baylor College. She planned to combine her career with having a family. Pediatrics was the most common specialty for women physicians to pursue at the time, but in her senior year she read an essay by Dr. Virginia Apgar promoting anesthesiology as a good specialty for women with children.

Dr. Calmes decided to follow Apgar's advice and train in anesthesiology, beginning her residency in 1966 just after the birth of her first child. She was the only woman resident at the 1000-bed Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the leading place for anesthesiology training at the time. In order to balance her childcare responsibilities with the demands of her residency, she arranged to do an extra six months instead of any night calls. When she became pregnant with her second child a year into her residency, the faculty were less supportive and gave her the most difficult schedule possible in her last few months of pregnancy.

Whatever the difficulty of combining family life with career in medicine, Dr. Calmes has taken great inspiration from the achievements of other women physicians. She has written a number of articles on Dr. Apgar and the history of women in anesthesiology, and in 1982 she co-founded the Anesthesia History Association.

In 1970, after working as a staff anesthesiologist and instructor in Pennsylvania, Dr. Calmes moved to California to take up a position as staff anesthiologist at Valley Children's Hospital in Fresno. She has remained in California ever since, mostly at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1986 she was made chair of the department of anesthesiology at Kern Medical Center, and in 1988 she was named chair of the department of anesthesiology at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center. She still holds both positions and in 1994 was also made vice-chair of the department of anesthesiology at UCLA School of Medicine.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

My lack of political skills and position as an "outsider," outside the normal group of physicians. Women don't learn to play political games early on, as men do. Health and financial resources were also obstacles.

How do I make a difference?

By being a very competent clinician, teacher and administrator. This shows our female — and male — medical students that women doctors can do what male faculty do as well as the men do and are as good as the male faculty, if not better. (My department is primarily female. The male medical students who rotate on our service are very surprised — even shocked — by all these super-slick female anesthesiologists running around the operating room, organizing, teaching, etc. They've never seen anything like it because there is no other department in the medical school like it.)

Also, by telling the stories of early women doctors. There were lots of them, and their stories are inspiring! My work on Dr. Virginia Apgar has been especially important to me. Apgar in public denied that being female affected her professional life. But, it was a critical factor, and I was able to document that.

By being a department chair. I can make work situations to meet women physicians needs. For example, we have facilitated nursing mothers' needs and other family needs with a minimum of hassle, compared to when I asked for a special schedule as a resident to meet my family needs. Also, I can stop sexual harassment. The only time I had to do this, it gave me such a sense of justification. The fact that I had previously worked for the harasser was an additional delight.

By educating post-polio patients and their physicians about the possible problems during anesthesia and surgery. My material is on fourteen different web sites for patients the last time I checked.

Who was my mentor?

I didn't have one! There were so few women physicians when I could have used a mentor, and none were available. Reading about the life of Elizabeth Blackwell served as a substitute in a way; I was inspired by her courage. I had to find my own way, and it was HARD. No one I knew in medicine was like me, and I didn't have anyone I could pattern myself after. Now, I make every effort to serve as a role model for young women physicians. Just being active in the hospital and medical school's daily life is enough. It's surprising how many people have told me over the years that I inspired them or that they tried to be like me — and I didn't even know it!