The first female surgical resident at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Dr. Ternberg served for decades at the School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital
By Elizabethe Holland-Durando / Washington University School of Medicine
In 1954, when Jessie L. Ternberg, MD, PhD, became the first female surgical resident at what was then Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, the young physician-scientist was not given a warm welcome by her new, male colleagues. Undaunted, Dr. Ternberg’s pioneering step became the first of several, as she eventually was embraced not only as an extremely talented surgeon but an excellent leader, role model and mentor. She served on the Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM) faculty for 37 years, first as a general surgeon and later as the director of pediatric surgery at St. Louis Children’s Hospital (SLCH).
A professor emerita of surgery and pediatric surgery, Dr. Ternberg died July 9, 2016, of natural causes while on vacation in Zermatt, Switzerland. Zermatt was one of her favorite places, according to her longtime friend and travel companion, Mabel Purkerson, MD, also a School of Medicine professor emerita. Dr. Ternberg, of Creve Coeur, was 92.
Dr. Ternberg paved the way for many women in medicine. During her internship at Boston City Hospital, Dr. Ternberg—a 1953 graduate of WUSM—decided she wanted to be a surgeon. When she couldn’t find a surgical residency program that would consider an application from a woman, she wrote to Carl Moyer, MD, the head of surgery at Washington University. “I told him I thought it was a bum rap they wouldn’t take women,” Dr. Ternberg recalled in a 2002 interview published in Washington Magazine. “He agreed— and he accepted me.”
There were still many obstacles to overcome, though, from where she would live—residents lived at the hospital, and no one had ever had to make room for a woman before—to how and where she would prepare for surgery.
“She had to be twice as good and twice as smart as everybody else to survive, and she was,” said Timothy J. Eberlein, MD, head of the Department of Surgery, director of Siteman Cancer Center and a longtime friend of Dr. Ternberg. “She had a fierce determination, and that’s probably how she overcame all those obstacles over the years. She was like that to the end.”
In 1958, she became the first female chief resident at Barnes, and in 1959, she became an instructor in surgery at the School of Medicine. Promoted to professor of surgery in 1971, she was instrumental in establishing the Division of Pediatric Surgery and was named its director in 1972. The next year, she became the first woman to be elected head of the School of Medicine’s faculty council.
“She had a wonderful life, and it was a life she made for herself—nobody gave it to her,” said Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth, MD. “She had enormous determination and focus and courage, and she was unflappable and put up with things that other people didn’t have to. She never gave up, she never slowed down. She just kept going and was an absolutely wonderful surgeon and a wonderful physician who was greatly admired by everybody. I was very lucky to know her.”
During Dr. Ternberg’s tenure at the School of Medicine and SLCH, she routinely performed more than 500 operations a year. In addition, she led a surgical team in successfully separating two sets of conjoined twins, connected at the pelvis, a very rare condition. Colleagues described her surgeries as “works of art.”
“Jessie was the go-to person,” said Dr. Eberlein, who is also the Bixby Professor of Surgery. “If you had a child with a tough problem—and it didn’t necessarily have to be a surgical problem — Jessie was the person you consulted. Everybody regarded her with a kind of awe. She was a remarkable individual.”
She is survived by a multitude of friends and by her nieces and nephews. A memorial service was held September 25 in St. Louis.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Jessie L. Ternberg, PhD, MD, Scholarship Fund, Attn. Helen Z. Liu; 7425 Forsyth Blvd., Suite 2100; St. Louis, Mo. 63105. Contributions also may be made to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Attn. Nicole Ambos, 210 Hazel Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63119; or to the Missouri Botanical Garden.