Reintroducing a practical visionary

| March 4, 2013

Connie Guion in the chemistry lab in 1908.

First in a series

When something is in front of us every day, it’s easy to take for granted, to forget why it’s special or what it means. The name of Dr. Connie M. Guion comes to mind. Sweet Briar’s science building is named for her, as are three endowed scholarship funds, a named professorship and one of the coveted all-College awards given to a senior at graduation.

The award is earned for “excellence as a human being and as a member of the College.” Lauren Alkire won it in 2012, but knew little about its namesake until she researched Guion.

“I knew that she had been a chemistry professor, and a little bit about her involvement with a few clubs on campus — but nothing really notable,” Alkire said from Britain, where she’s studying for her master’s at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Occasions such as Women’s History Month allow us to reflect on yesterday’s pioneers, as well as contemporary happenings that history will ultimately record. In that spirit, this remembrance of Connie Myers Guion is the first in a series of stories this month related to the 2013 theme, “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”

Revolutionizing healthcare

When Guion Science Center was dedicated on April 22, 1966, President Anne Gary Pannell introduced her, saying Guion’s life epitomized her belief in women’s education.

“She stands as an ideal of the goal toward which every woman must aspire — to educate herself to the limit of her abilities and contribute her talents to the betterment of society wherever she finds herself.”

Pannell could cite ample evidence for the statement, including that Sweet Briar’s new science hall was the second building to bear her name.

Dr. Connie Guion in front of the New York City hospital wing that bears her name. Courtesy of Medical Center Archives of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell.

A few years earlier, the new outpatient wing of the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center was named the Connie Guion Building — a first for a living woman doctor. It was the new home of the Cornell Pay Clinic, which she had helped establish in 1922 and later led as its chief.

The clinic revolutionized outpatient care for New York’s poor and working-class residents, creating a model that was implemented across the country and is evident today.

By then, Guion was already noted for shaking things up, with characteristic wit and common sense. In 1918 at Bellevue Hospital, she challenged the long ambulance shifts required of her as an intern, and succeeded in getting them changed from 24 to 12 hours.

“I think it is inhuman to make interns hang on the back of an ambulance 24 hours at a time,” she told the superintendent, according to a profile in Look magazine (“The amazing Doctor Guion,” Sept. 12, 1961).

He told her it had been that way for 100 years. “Well,” she said, “the century’s up.”

During the internship, she began teaching at the Cornell University Weill Medical College, where she had graduated at the top of her class. Guion taught in addition to running a private practice in New York, which she maintained into her late 80s. She became the nation’s first woman to be promoted to full professor of clinical medicine in 1946.

No place for old-fashioned notions

Of course, all that happened after she made her first impression on Sweet Briar as a chemistry and physics teacher from 1908 to 1913. The Lincolnton, N.C., native had delayed medical school to help put two younger sisters through school, as an older sister had helped her. She was the ninth of 12 children. According to Look, she did not learn to read until age 10.

Always an adventurer, Guion reveled in Sweet Briar’s newness. She saw it as a 20th-century college with “no place for old-fashioned notions,” according to former president Betsy Muhlenfeld, who noted that Guion wrote glowingly to her Wellesley classmates, “Imagine working in a place not tainted with precedent but open to conviction on every point.”

She also appreciated founding president Mary Benedict’s determination to make the school viable without compromising her vision for its mission. When Benedict arrived in June 1906, there were four impressive new buildings — but only two faculty members and one student enrolled for the coming fall.

In a 1959 Founders’ Day keynote address, Guion said, “How simply Mary Benedict could have answered all the problems that confronted her — both financial and academic — had she decided to build here a stylish boarding school where girls could be prepared to cook, to sew, to paint, to become musicians, linguists — in short to be accomplished young ladies and promising wives. This she would not do because she believed that Indiana Fletcher had higher ideals for the education of women.”

Despite Guion’s affinity for forging new paths, she nonetheless contributed to the College’s revered traditions, organizing clubs such as the forerunner to Paint ’n’ Patches and helping to set up the athletic program. She also founded the bookstore in 1909, handing Benedict a check for $16,000 from its profits when she left for New York four years later.

Guion’s affection for Sweet Briar lasted until she died in 1971 at age 88, and she would again dedicate herself to its welfare. She helped lead a campaign to establish the Mary Kendrick Benedict Scholarship in 1945. She became an overseer in 1950 and was made a life member of the board in 1956. At the time, she chaired the development committee responsible for directing the Half-Century Campaign for $2.5 million and creating the annual giving program.

Her private practice in New York appears to have been fortuitous for Sweet Briar. Guion counted among her clients Rockefellers, Astors and John Hay Whitney — names that are associated with significant gifts to the College, such as the Guion-Whitney Professor of Physics chair.

When she died, the Vincent Astor Foundation gave $5,000 to establish the Connie M. Guion Endowed Scholarship Fund and as numerous small gifts poured into the College in her honor, they were added to the account. This year, seven students received scholarships from it.

A well-traveled path

Although Guion’s time at Sweet Briar was short, she recognized that she and her colleagues were building something special. She saw it among the students, about whom she wrote, “Everywhere I was conscious of a spirit of ownership or a better word is partnership, a spirit of jealousy for this growing young college.”

Laura Lee Joiner ’96 attended medical school on an Army scholarship and served until 2007. She attained the rank of major and earned several citations including the Combat Action Badge and two Army Commendation Medals.

If memories of Guion have faded, her path is nonetheless well-traveled by Sweet Briar women such as Dr. Laura Lee Rihl Joiner ’96. Joiner was her class valedictorian and the Presidential Medalist, among other honors. She attended medical school on an Army scholarship and served until 2007.

As an ob-gyn, Joiner has devoted her career to women’s health, often working with underserved groups — the Iraqi Women’s Initiative while deployed, treating women vets and finding the care they need in the Veteran’s Affairs system built for men, and directing a clinic for lower-income clients. She also held numerous teaching positions, and recently left the University of Alabama to work in private practice.

And she is raising three children.

Joiner admires Guion’s pluck — and appreciates it. “She would have been unusual in her time,” she says. “It is because of trailblazers like Dr. Guion that women are so readily a part of medicine today. … I have met no resistance during my career to the idea that I could not only be a doctor and an Army officer, but also a wife and mother.”

Alkire, too, is grateful to women like Guion. “Her dedication to the school and determination in her professional life have paved the way for so many women to succeed,” she says. “It’s also served as a great source of encouragement.”

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Chemistry, Physics, Uncategorized, Women's History Month