The professor, surgeon, and author was one of the first women to lead a surgery department at an academic medical center.
Carol Scott-Conner learned early on that teaching was the highest calling. Her father was a physicist and textbook author, her mother a junior-college professor. Both stimulated her love of scholarship and science.
Today Scott-Conner is professor of surgery in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, and her teaching and writing have influenced countless students around the world.
"My parents left me with a sense that being a professor was the best you could aspire to, so I never considered anything else," she says. "I've loved it. I love being challenged by students and residents and being around bright people."
While her parents encouraged her at home, a young Scott-Conner quickly learned that the world was not as accepting of women in the sciences.
Her high school guidance counselor told her nursing was a good career for a woman interested in science. Scott-Conner enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology anyway, where she studied electrical engineering and was one of about 35 women in a class of 900.
She applied to medical schools in the early 1970s at a time when young men entered graduate programs to avoid the Vietnam War—and gender discrimination was perfectly legal.
"Admissions officers would ask, 'Why should we accept you? If we accept you, then we might have to turn down a man who could get drafted and come home in a body bag.' It's hard to counter that argument."
Scott-Conner went on to earn a medical degree from New York University, where she fell in love with Harry Conner—today her husband of 35 years—and the art of surgery.
"Surgery is direct and satisfying," she says. "You operate because you think you can help your patient, and most of the time, they get better."
She climbed the ranks in academic medicine, eventually becoming professor and chief of staff at the University Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi. She earned a PhD in anatomy and cell biology. And she set her sights even higher, aspiring to become head of an academic surgery department.
But while she was invited to interviews, she found that she would need an edge to impress departments made up largely of men.
"Nobody ever said, 'What makes you think you can lead a department of men?'" she says. "Instead they would say, 'You don't have a lot of administrative experience.'"
So while she worked full time, she pursued an MBA. The degree required certain undergraduate courses that she'd never taken, so she taught herself basic accounting and other subjects in order to test out of them. It allowed her to graduate in half the time.
In 1995, Scott-Conner came to Iowa to become chair of the Department of Surgery. She was only the second woman in the country to lead a surgery department at an academic medical center.
During the nine years that she led the department, her proudest accomplishment was helping UI Hospitals and Clinics earn certification as a Level 1 Trauma Center, the highest level offered by the American College of Surgeons. The designation has helped transform trauma care at the hospital.
She credits her husband, a preventive medicine specialist, with supporting her along the way: "You don't get that sort of position unless you have someone standing by you and taking care of things," she says.
She stepped down in 2004 and has continued to teach, pursue clinical work in breast cancer surgery, and write. To date, she has written eight medical textbooks that have been published in five languages including Chinese.
She has also penned eight short, fictional stories that have been published in literary journals.
The stories came out of a question she occasionally received from male colleagues: could she recommend any books about what it's like to be a female surgeon? Their daughters were considering the career and they wanted to read about what to expect.
The problem, Scott-Conner recognized, was most memoirs written by female surgeons focused on the difficulties they faced as one of few women in the field.
"But that's not really the case anymore," she says. Women consistently make up more than 50 percent of medical school classes and pursue surgery in increasing numbers.
Scott-Conner, who has attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival each year for more than a decade, decided to write her own fictional stories centered on women surgeons. She writes about how enjoyable and life-changing the profession is.
"When I came to Iowa, I knew it was a wonderful medical school in a great town," she says. "But I didn't know about the Writers' Workshop or the Summer Writing Festival. It just happened as a huge bonus that they were here."
Among her many honors, Scott-Conner received a UI Distinguished Achievement Award at the 2008 Celebration of Excellence and Achievement Among Women. This year's award ceremony will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 1, 2009, in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol Museum.
Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; photo by Susan McClellen
March 30, 2009