In 1954, when Jessie L. Ternberg, PhD, MD, 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, 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 faculty for 37 years, first as a general surgeon and later as the director of pediatric surgery at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
A professor emerita of surgery and surgery in pediatrics, Ternberg died July 9, 2016, of natural causes while on vacation in Zermatt, Switzerland, one of her favorite places, according to her longtime friend and travel companion, Mabel Purkerson, MD, also a School of Medicine professor emerita. Ternberg, of Creve Coeur, was 92.
Ternberg paved the way for many women in medicine. During her internship at Boston City Hospital, Ternberg — a 1953 graduate of Washington University School of Medicine — 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,” 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 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 Ternberg’s tenure at the School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, 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 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.”
In 1993, former pediatric surgical residents and colleagues established the Jessie L. Ternberg Award, to be given annually to a female medical graduate who best exemplifies Ternberg’s “indomitable spirit of determination, perseverance and dedication to her patients.”
In 2000, she was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for her contributions to the practice and teaching of pediatric surgery and for her role in mentoring students.
She was the author of more than 100 papers and 10 book chapters. She also wrote A Handbook for Pediatric Surgery, which became known as the bible of pediatric surgery and made her name familiar to a generation of pediatric surgeons.
Ternberg was involved with a variety of professional organizations, including serving as president of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Society and president of the St. Louis Surgical Society. She was a member of the American College of Surgeons and the American Pediatric Surgical Association.
Raised in Fairmont, Minn., she earned her bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College in 1946. She went on to earn a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Texas at Austin in 1950. There, she and Robert Eakin, PhD, reported their discovery of the mechanism by which Vitamin B-12 is absorbed in the intestine, helping to establish a cure for pernicious anemia.
Among her numerous honors, she received honorary doctor of science degrees from Grinnell, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Washington University; several Washington University Alumni Awards; a Washington University Second Century Award; and membership in Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. She also was named the honorary grand marshal at Washington University’s 2006 commencement, and was a life trustee at Grinnell.
Other honors included the Trustees’ Award from the Academy of Science of St. Louis; the St. Louis Globe-Democrat Woman of Achievement Award; a U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s International Women’s Year Award; and membership in the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.
In 2009, more than 50 of Ternberg’s friends and admirers funded a professorship in her name, the Jessie L. Ternberg, MD, PhD, Distinguished Professorship in Pediatric Surgery. The professorship is held by the director of the Division of Pediatric Surgery and surgeon-in-chief at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Following Ternberg’s retirement in 1996, she remained involved with a national pediatric oncology group.
She is survived by a multitude of friends, and by her nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sept. 25 in the Shoenberg Theater, Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Blvd., 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.