International Women’s Day – Eleanor Delfs, MD was the First Woman Named Full Professor at MCW

Eleanor Delfs, MD

Eleanor Delfs, MD

In honor of International Women’s Day, we reflect on our own historic milestone in MCW history. Dr. Eleanor Delfs was the first woman to be named a full professor at MCW.

The year 1963 witnessed a milestone event when Eleanor Delfs, MD, became the first woman to be named a full professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin’s predecessor institution. Two years later, she was at the center of yet another milestone – having been awarded the institution’s first endowed chair (The Patrick J. and Margaret G. McMahon Professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology).

As a clinician, Dr. Delfs was known for building strong relationships with her patients and giving generously of her time. She also provided emotional support to many expectant mothers, including the wives of her fellow physicians.

“Dr. Delfs was very special and incredibly kind,” says Larry Lane, MD, GME ’70, who was a resident under Dr. Delfs beginning in 1965. “It was her concept that ‘you have to stay with your patient throughout her time in labor.'”

Dr. Robert Lane (Chair, Pediatrics), his brother Charley and Dr. Eleanor Delfs, ca. 1968.

According to Dr. Lane’s son, Robert Lane, MD, professor and chair of the department of pediatrics at MCW, “My father and the other residents saw Dr. Delfs as the paragon of what a physician should be. She inspired them with her leadership, her personal touch with patients and her clinical ethics of putting babies and mothers before herself.”

Dr. Delfs also was a pioneer in the study of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone produced during pregnancy by part of the placenta. HCG plays a role in developing blood vessels and capillaries in the uterus to support a growing fetus, and is commonly used in pregnancy tests. Dr. Delfs was a forerunner in exploring the use of fluid tests for hCG to monitor and manage abnormal pregnancies in which tiny cysts form in the uterus and the embryo does not fully develop.

“They were the standard in the country, if not the world, in choriocarcinoma management,” says Steven Azuma, MD, GME ’75, a former resident under Dr. Delfs and a retired physician in Kenosha.

Throughout her work in the clinic, laboratory and classroom, Dr. Delfs served as a mentor for countless medical students and residents during her time at MCW.

“Clinically, I’m a neonatologist because I took after my dad,” says Dr. Robert Lane, “and I think Dr. Delfs was a huge influence on his becoming the doctor that I looked up to as a kid.”

“Ours was a unique program where we gained invaluable knowledge and experience,” says Dr. Larry Lane, “because rounds were free-flowing discussions and residents routinely performed significant surgeries along with post-operation care.”

“All of her former residents pride themselves on being bedside obstetricians,” notes Dr. Azuma.

Dr. Delfs remained a beloved faculty member and physician until her death in 1977 from ovarian cancer. Dr. Azuma was part of a group of former residents who together with Janet Rader, MD, chair and Jack A. and Elaine D. Klieger Professor, contributed to the 2011 establishment of the Eleanor Delfs, MD, Lectureship for Pioneers within MCW’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. Each May, the department honors her memory through this special event and sponsors a leader in the field of obstetrics and gynecology to discuss state-of-the-art research and clinical practice with Milwaukee-area physicians, scientists and interested community members.

“We all wanted to help the next generation of obstetricians stay on top of the field’s evolution,” says Dr. Azuma, “while also contributing to it like Dr. Delfs did.”

Learn more about the Eleanor Delfs, MD, Lectureship for Pioneers →