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On February 5, 1998, the world lost a most remarkable woman, Mary Catherine Raugust Howell, a physician, psychologist, lawyer, mentor,
musician, friend, and mostly a mother. She was the first woman dean at Harvard
Medical School (1972-1975) and led the fight to end quotas and to open medical
schools to women.
The cause of her death was breast cancer. Dr Howell died at home, surrounded
by her children, who gathered from different cities of the United States and
sat vigil with her for 5 weeks. "We're only trying to take care of her the
way she has shown us. She was always there for us when we needed her," said
Sam Howell, speaking for his siblings.
Born in Grand Forks, ND, on September 2, 1932, Dr Howell received her
MD and PhD in psychology in 1962 from the University of Minnesota, and her
JD from Harvard Law School in 1991.
She was 1 of 5 cofounders of the National Women's Health Network and
a contributor to Our Bodies, Ourselves. Her book, Why Would a Girl Go Into Medicine? started as a collection
of the experiences of women medical students—documenting the discrimination
against women—and became instrumental (in synch with the feminist movement
and helping to fuel Title IX legislation) in increasing the percentage of
women medical students from 9% in 1969 to 25% in 1979, to almost 50% at present.
"She was an extraordinary woman, totally principled, an intellectual
genius . . . one of the fiercest and yet one of the most gentle of all the
major 20th-century feminist revolutionaries," said Barbara Seaman, cofounder
of the National Women's Health Network. "One of the most important things
she did was teaching women how to develop a support system, hang onto their
values, and keep their eyes on the prize . . . to hold onto values that brought
you into medicine," said Judy Norsigian, founder of the Women's Health Book
Aside from raising 7 children, Dr Howell opened her home to many students
and to women during transitions in life, sharing her untiring search for knowledge,
her humor, her music, and her bread-baking. She encouraged students to examine
the political aspects of health care, ranging from nutrition in schoolchildren
to the power of special-interest groups through legislation affecting health
care. She empowered parents to take charge of their children's health and
practiced pediatrics in Boston and in Maine; worked with people with disabilities
and mental illness through the Shriver Center and the Fernald State School
in Waltham, Mass; children with drug addiction, homelessness, and HIV through
the Medical Van, a program at the Massachusetts General Hospital for street
youth; and most recently as the director of adoption resources. She was a
member of the Division of Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School from 1992
to 1994. She strongly advocated for mothers to empower themselves in nurturing
their children's health, and through her understanding of medicine in political
terms offered people strategies to take back control of their bodies and their
care, and to communicate effectively to caretakers about their needs. She
is the author of numerous articles and 7 books, including Helping Ourselves, Healing at Home, Death and Dying and Ethical Dilemmas
(a guide for staff serving developmentally disabled adults), and Serving the Underserved: Caring for People Who Are Both Old and Mentally Retarded. She also wrote a monthly column in McCall's Working
Mother Magazine from 1977 to 1987.
Dr Howell was one of my 2 interviewers for medical school. The other
wanted to know (1) why he should pick me among 4000 other applicants and (2)
what I would do if a woman who was 8 months pregnant asked me to give her
an abortion. Like the other students interviewed for her book Why Would a Girl . . . , I was puzzled by these questions whose main
purpose seemed to confound the applicant. I would never have made it through
the system without Dr Howell's support. She was my mentor in medicine and
parenting. In gratitude I invited her to join the Apgar Quartet (instruments
made by Virginia Apgar [under the guidance of Carleen Hutchins], the anesthesiologist
who developed the Apgar score) to play in Dallas at the American Academy of
Pediatrics Convention, in honor of Dr Apgar.
Mary Howell leaves 7 children: Nicholas Jordan, Sam Howell, Sarah Howell,
Eve Howell, Aaron Howell, Eli Howell, and Ned Raugust; 2 daughters-in-law,
Annette and Mary; and a granddaughter, Jillian.
Her memorial service on March 8, International Women's Day, was attended
by more than 400 people at Christ Church in Cambridge. There were 6 speakers
representing all different aspects of her work life and music played by 35
musicians, most of whom had shared the joy of playing chamber music with her
5 nights a week.
Ma Y. Mary Catherine Raugust Howell. JAMA. 1998;279(19):1586. doi:10.1001/jama.279.19.1586