Pioneering Women: Dr. Jessie L. Ternberg

A true pioneer, Dr. Jessie Ternberg (1924-2016) was a woman of many firsts, and for these she justly accumulated numerous accolades and awards. She can be counted among the forerunners of the 20th century, whose contributions to the medical and scientific community succeeded in changing the way that medicine was approached, particularly in the realm of pediatrics. Recognized internationally as an exceptionally gifted surgeon who helped to reconceive and recalibrate the surgical arena in order to accommodate the special emotional and physical needs of children, Jessie served at the frontline of a number of fields, along the way succeeding in surmounting the substantial barriers that until then had prevented women from pursuing such careers, while opening the door for others to follow in her path.

She was the first surgical resident and first woman chief resident at Barnes Hospital in Saint Louis, the first female surgeon on the medical school faculty, as well as the first woman elected to head the medical school council. She was internationally recognized as a gifted surgeon renowned for her minimally invasive surgical techniques, long before this was invented. Her awards and honors include Washington University Distinguished Alumni Faculty Award, the International Women's Year Award for Health Care, membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha, the Horatio Alger Award, Distinguished Member Award of the Association of Women Surgeons, Trustees Award of the St. Louis Academy of Science, and the first Aphrodite Jannopoulo Hofsommer Award. She was named the Honorary Grand Marshall for the graduation ceremony at Washington University. In her honor the "Jessie L. Ternberg" award was established.

Of all of her tributes, perhaps the one that best encapsulates her accomplishments is the Jessie L. Ternberg Award established in her honor and given annually to the female member of the graduating class at Washington U School of Medicine who best exemplifies Dr. Ternberg's "indomitable spirit of determination, perseverance and dedication to her patients". Anyone who had the fortunate chance to meet Jessie would not for a moment have doubted her determination, perseverance or dedication, yet it was her singular "spirit" that made her stand out from anyone else, within or outside of the surgical realm. Her unique combination of resolute persistence, innate curiosity, along with a pioneering approach, enabled Jessie to flourish where others had not.

The road that one needs to travel to become a surgeon is undeniably a long one for anyone, but for a young girl growing up in Fairmont, Minnesota post Great Depression, the lengthy route was quite a bit longer than for others. Born in the rural farming town of Corning, California, the seeds for Jessie's trailblazing propensities were most likely first sown due to her father who rather than follow his own father's calling as a Lutheran minister, or the obvious route as a farmer, exhibited a strongly independent creative streak, choosing photography as his profession, a rather unusual one for the time. In the 1920's photography was as yet a fairly uncommon not to mention, cumbersome vocation, requiring a range of unwieldy accouterments, and photos consisted mainly of posed formal studio shots. It is unlikely that the practical and hardworking cultivators of Corning had much need for portrait photography and Jessie's father found it difficult to meet his family's needs through his endeavors there. As a result in Jessie's early years the family moved often, bundling up the unwieldy equipment and taking to the road in search of a new communities in need of pictures to encapsulate their loved ones.

It was during this nomadic period in her life, that her pioneering spirit and quest to explore and conquer unknown challenges began to take form. For the young girl the family road trips were exhilarating, each day presenting the adventure of new encounters and discoveries. However subsequent to the Great Depression, the rural communities upon which her father mainly subsisted for commissions were especially hard hit. People were pressed to cover even the most basic of essentials and a portrait was not included among these. Under this deteriorating countrywide scenario it was clear that it would be more difficult than ever to support a family of five on the returns generated via photography. The Ternberg family joined the wave of folks seeking out a new life and eventually landed back to where Jessie's mother's family had established roots some generations before, Fairmont, Minnesota. The move to Fairmont brought Jessie's geographical travels to an abrupt halt, but it could not contain her wanderlust. For the young girl used to the excitement of the shifting scenery and experiences of a roaming lifestyle, the small town milieu of Fairmont seemed especially confining. However it was particularly the tight physical and cerebral boundaries that she encountered there that served to fuel Jessie's steadfast determination. To surmount these Jessie's lifelong intellectual pioneering journey began.

To escape the tedium and lack of scholarly challenge posed by the community school system, Jessie spent hours each day in the town library. For Jessie the endless rows of books offered her the freedoms of the open natural vistas of her early years. Reading unlocked pathways to realms that she had never even imagined. Devouring everything on any topic that the library had available, Jessie began to decipher the virtually infinite possibilities on offer in the world and understood that the most reliable way of attaining these was through education. This an especially lofty idea for any young woman of the time, but even more so for one without obvious means of financing a higher education and for the most part without encouragement from family members, some whom believed that Jessie could do far better were she to marry the local chicken farmer, than pursue college. With so many hurdles even before she started, most would have given up. But not Jessie, the adversity only served to strengthen her resolve. She would take on each obstacle and challenge along the way and supersede these.

It was in part the tremendous difficulties, the uncertainties as well as the many disciplinary avenues that she encountered in her pursuit of an education that perhaps best equipped Jessie for her eventual calling as a surgeon. As she described the practice of surgery; "Uncertainty is a critically important factor for the surgeon. Keep in mind, the awesome complexity. Preparedness minimizes insecurity. It is the background of training and the territory of experience plus the utilization of science that gives the margin of safety necessary to more adequately cope with uncertainty". Counsel we can all use in a number of contexts.

Today a child in need of medical attention encounters a full realm of medicine specifically designed to accommodate the particular needs of children. It is hard to imagine that this was not always so. It is due to the perseverance and empathy of Jessie and other pioneering Doctors, that in the United States pediatric specialization developed. Jessie's scientific training helped her to recognize that diseases took distinct forms in children and understood the need to treat children differently from adults. To revolutionize thinking in this regard required someone willing to persevere in overcoming the medical community's disinclination to change at this time. For Jessie who had already managed to breakdown so many barriers, this was but one more. Jessie's understanding and interpretation of children's needs went far beyond the technical, extending well into the territory of compassionate. Jessie was a true healer, who knew each patient as an individual, in many cases following their progress and achievements throughout her lifetime.