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Women of Otolaryngology: Celebrating the History and Future of Women at Mass Eye and Ear

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Focus is recognizing the women of Mass Eye and Ear—both past and present. At Mass Eye and Ear, women have been vital to the discovery of life-changing cures, providing world-class patient care and pioneering a brighter future for otolaryngology–head and neck surgery (OHNS) and ophthalmology.

Decades ago, few women practiced medicine, let alone specialized medicine. Otolaryngology in particular, has been a discipline long dominated by men. Nevertheless, various women were responsible in making Mass Eye and Ear the world leader it is today.

Today, at Mass Eye and Ear, more women surgeons, researchers and clinicians are contributing to the discipline of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery (OHNS) and steering it to new heights.

Women in OHNS over the years

Since the founding of Mass Eye and Ear in 1811, women contributed to and influenced the hospital. Like many medical institutions of the time, women staff members were nurses, administrators, as well as specialized therapist and research assistants.

Mary Hayden (right) with a patient in 1938. Mary Hayden was head nurse of the ear clinic from 1923-1943.

Examples of the women who contributed to the success of otolaryngology at Mass Eye and Ear are highlighted:

Drs. Isabel D. Kerr and Dr. Margaret Noyes Kleinert (third and fourth from right in the back row) with otolaryngology surgical colleagues in 1911.

Isabel D. Kerr, MD

Dr. Kerr developed a curiosity for medicine as a young girl growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At an early age, she was fascinated with why some people got sick while others stayed well, and she set out to become a nurse. It was with her father’s encouragement that she changed paths to become a doctor, something few women were doing in the late 1800s. She enrolled in Tufts University School of Medicine and graduated with her M.D. in 1903. In 1922, Dr. Kerr became the first woman physician hired to the Otolaryngology Department at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and the Massachusetts General Hospital Throat Department. She accepted a position as an assistant and later held the title of assistant surgeon. She retired from her position at Mass Eye and Ear in 1934.

Margaret Nyes Kleinert, MD

Dr. Kleinert received her medical degree in 1903 from Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Soon after she settled on otolaryngology as a specialty and worked in Massachusetts as a surgeon. During her early years in Boston she built a private practice, and in 1930, Dr. Kleinert was hired as an assistant surgeon at Mass Eye and Ear in the Otolaryngology Department, the second woman physician hired by the department and only the third woman physician hired to the hospital’s clinical staff.

Dr. Kleinert’s legacy consists not only of her own career as a pioneer and prolific author in the field of otolaryngology but her dedicated efforts to document the lives and achievements of other early women in medicine through her work as a historian for the New England branch of the American Medical Women’s Association.

Mary Doehler

Mary Doehler working with a patient in 1950.

Mary Doehler was a vocal therapist who directed esophageal speech classes at Mass Eye and Ear in the 1950s. She was responsible for developing a technique used to retrain individuals to speak by using their esophagus after having their larynx surgically removed. Doehler, a laryngectomee herself, trained numerous teachers on how to administer the technique, making it available to countless individuals in the United States and worldwide.

Louise Clark

Louise Clark working in the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories (EPL) in 1962.

Louise Clark was one of the first research assistants to work in the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories (EPL) shortly after the lab was founded in 1958. Louise worked with Nelson Kiang, PhD, the EPL’s first director, and co-authored publications describing some of the lab’s earliest studies.

Today, the EPL is a multidisciplinary group of more than 20 investigators within 11 research units dedicated to the study of hearing and deafness, with a primary focus on acoustics and biomechanics, inner ear biology and central auditory processing. EPL is considered the world’s largest and most productive private research enterprise focused on hearing and deafness.

Barbara Herrmann, PhD 

Barbara Herrmann, PhD, (right) and Aaron Thornton, PhD, (left) work on an infant hearing screener, undated.

Dr. Herrmann joined Mass Eye and Ear in 1985 and is still a senior scientist at the hospital, as well as an Assistant Professor of OHNS at Harvard Medical School. She specializes in electrophysiology of the human auditory and vestibular systems. Through her research, she aims to develop a more thorough understanding of the underlying mechanisms of these systems and optimize these measures for diagnosis and treatment monitoring.

Elaine Carrol, MD

From 1976 to 1979, Dr. Carol was the first woman resident of the Harvard Combined Otolaryngology Residency Program. Before entering medical school, she received a BS in nursing sciences from the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a part-time nurse.

Marie-Claude Quintal, MD

Marie-Claude Quintal, MD, (left) pictured with Salah Salman, MD, in 1993.

Dr. Quintal was the first Harvard Medical School fellow in sinus surgery. Alongside Salah Salmon, MD, the first director of the Sinus Center, Dr. Quintal worked in the Sinus Center at Mass Eye and Ear when the center first opened in 1993.

Women Leaders of Today

Today, increasing number of women are leaders in the Department of OHNS at Mass Eye and Ear. Their impact on patient care, research, and the hospital at large will be felt for years to come.

Ciersten A. Burks, MD

Ciersten A. Burks, MD, in the operating room in 2021

Dr. Burks is the first African American woman resident of the Harvard Combined Otolaryngology Residency Program. During her time in residency, Dr. Burks has joined the Mass Eye and Ear Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) Council and the Harvard Department of OHNS DE&I Task Force.

She has helped lead several initiatives including her work alongside Regan Bergmark, MD, an associate surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, on a United Against Racism Grant awarded by Mass General Brigham. The grant will launch an interinstitutional collaboration between Mass General Brigham and Harvard affiliates that will focus on improving access for patients seeking head and neck cancer care by providing multilingual resources to help them navigate their care.

Stacey T. Gray, MD.

Stacey T. Gray, MD

Dr. Gray is director of the Sinus Center at Mass Eye and Ear. She also serves as vice chair of Otolaryngology Education at Mass Eye and Ear, residency program director of the Harvard Combined Otolaryngology Residency Program and associate fellowship director of the Rhinology and Endoscopic Skull Base Fellowship Program at Mass Eye and Ear.

An alumna of the Harvard Combined Otolaryngology Residency Program, Dr. Gray is regularly recognized as a Top Doctor by Boston Magazine. Renowned for her expertise on endoscopic management of sinonasal and skull base pathology and surgical education, she has published and lectured on both topics nationally and internationally. She also currently serves as president-elect for the New England Otolaryngology Society, chair of the Fellowship Committee of the American Rhinologic Society, FLEX curriculum chair of the American Academic of OHNS and president of the Society of University Otolaryngologists.

Meaghan P. Reed, AuD, CCC-A

Meaghan P. Reed, AuD, CCC-A, administering a hearing exam.

Dr. Reed is director of Clinical Audiology at Mass Eye and Ear. She is a nationally certified and state-licensed audiologist with professional associations including the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

In 2022, Dr. Reed spearheaded efforts by the Audiology Department to launch The Tinnitus Management Program at Mass Eye and Ear. The program is the first of its kind in New England and provides information and interventions to help people manage and cope with their tinnitus: a common hearing-related condition defined by unwanted, persistent sounds.

Dr. Reed also played a leading role in helping Clinical Audiology separate the cost of its hearing aids from the services associated with audiologists fitting, dispensing and maintaining the devices. Known as “unbundling,” the separation of these costs provides patients with a lower up-front cost and allows them to choose the level of service they prefer and to only pay for the services they need.

Tessa A. Hadlock, MD

Tessa A. Hadlock, MD, discussing a procedure with a patient.

An alumnae of the Harvard Combined Otolaryngology Residency Program, Dr. Hadlock served as director of the Division of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and director of the Facial Nerve Center at Mass Eye and Ear. During her time in both leadership roles, she has popularized surgical innovations such as endoscopic sural nerve harvest, dual innervation free flaps and highly selective periocular neurectomy.

Renowned as a pioneering clinician-scientist with more than 20 years of experience in otolaryngology, Dr. Hadlock also serves as the Fazzalari-Grousbeck Chair in OHNS, as well as a NIH-funded investigator in both basic science and clinical facial nerve research. She has had the opportunity to operate on four continents, has lectured and travelled professionally to more than 20 countries and is fluent in English, French and Spanish.

Jessica Fewkes, MD

Jessica Fewkes, MD, examining a patient.

For more than 40 years, Dr. Fewkes has cared for thousands of patients with skin cancer. Academic journals have described her as a female pioneer in Mohs surgery, an innovative surgical technique that removes tumors while damaging the least amount of surrounding skin possible. She is responsible for bringing the technique to Boston, where she was the first Mohs surgeon in the Department of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School and has since become director of Mohs and Cutaneous Surgery at Mass Eye and Ear.

Dr. Fewkes has improved the standard of care for patients with skin cancer worldwide. In 2021, thanks to the generosity of a number of patients, the Jessica Fewkes Center in Dermatology and Facial Plastic Fund was endowed in perpetuity at Mass Eye and Ear.

Sharon Kujawa, PhD

Sharon Kujawa, PhD (back center), posing next to M. Charles Liberman, PhD.

Dr. Kujawa is a world-renowned auditory neuroscientist who currently serves as the Sheldon and Dorothea Buckler Chair in OHNS at Mass Eye and Ear and as a principal investigator in the EPL. Her research seeks to clarify mechanisms and functional consequences of common causes of acquired sensorineural hearing loss and translate that knowledge into improved diagnosis and treatment. In 2009, she and M. Charles Liberman, PhD, uncovered a new type of inner ear damage called cochlear synaptopathy, or “hidden hearing loss,” which has since changed the way scientists understand hearing loss and its possible treatments.

In 2017, the NIH awarded Dr. Kujawa, Dr. Liberman, Stephan Maison, AuD, PhD, CCC-A, and Daniel Polley, PhD, a P50 grant to investigate this new type of hearing damage from multiple angles. Through four separate projects, the team of researchers has found widespread evidence of neural degeneration hidden behind normal audiogram measurements.

Kristina Simonyan, MD, PhD, Dr med

Kristina Simonyan, MD, PhD, Dr med, in her office.

As director of Laryngology Research at Mass Eye and Ear, Dr. Simonyan has devoted much of her career to studying the neural mechanisms of voice tremor and laryngeal dystonia, among other voice and speech disorders. Her research has culminated in the creation of DystoniaNet, a deep-learning platform that can diagnose dystonia with 98.8 percent accuracy in less than on second. The technology is the first of its kind to provide an objective diagnosis for different forms of dystonia. She is also leading a clinical trial testing new treatments for laryngeal dystonia.

In September 2021, Dr. Simonyan was awarded an $11.9 million P50 Clinical Research Center Grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communicable Disorders. The grant is funding the formation of a new, multi-disciplinary center across four academic medical institutions committed to conducting research on laryngeal dystonia and voice tremor.

Leaders of tomorrow

Despite the incredible strides made toward gender equity in otolaryngology, Mark A. Varvares, MD, FACS, chief of the Department of OHNS at Mass Eye and Ear, knows the gap in female representation across the specialty remains far from closed.

In 2020, Dr. Varvares teamed up with Gregory W. Randolph, MD, FACS, FACE, director of the Thyroid and Parathyroid Endocrine Surgical Division, to launch the OHNS Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Task Force, which is responsible for infusing diversity, equity and inclusion as core values and imperatives for driving meaningful change across the department. In the past year, Heidi Nakajima, MD, PhD, an investigator in the EPL, has joined the task force as the OHNS Vice Chair of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Through the task force, Dr. Varvares hopes to increase the representation of women on Mass Eye and Ear OHNS leadership councils and in the Harvard Combined Otolaryngology Residency Program, among other underrepresented minority groups across the specialty.

“More women are needed in leadership positions across OHNS if we want to lead the specialty toward a brighter future,” Dr. Varvares said. “Failing to do so is a failure to the specialty. Given our position as a global leader in otolaryngology, this is our imperative. The impact that our female colleagues have had on our field is undeniable and needs to be highlighted and celebrated. Without their contributions, otolaryngology would certainly not have advanced as a specialty to where it is today.”


1 thought on “Women of Otolaryngology: Celebrating the History and Future of Women at Mass Eye and Ear”

  1. As a Professor Emeritus in Communication Sciences and Disorders, and as Founding Chair of the CSD department at NU, I read with much interest and enthusiasm your article. Outstanding development and progress in the roles of women in medicine and health sciences. I remember the embryonic work of Mary Doehler with esophageal speech. Congratulations. Profound article.

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