Alumni Q&A: Home at Northwestern

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After her career evolved, a long-time alumna returned to Chicago.

When Betty Hahneman, ’52 MD, ‘56 GME, started medical school 70 years ago, it was unusual for a woman to pursue a career in medicine — in fact, women made up only 6 percent of physicians in 1950, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. But that didn’t bother Hahneman. “I just thought medicine would be a good combination of my interests,” she says.

Here, Hahneman talks to Northwestern Medicine magazine about the evolution of her career and why she has stayed involved with Northwestern all these years.

What was your experience in medical school like?

There were 128 in our class and only eight women. There was only the Ward building, and we shared that with the dental school. We had a very different curriculum than the students today. All we did our first semester was gross anatomy and microscopic anatomy.

After graduation, you stayed at Northwestern for residency at Wesley Memorial Hospital (it was at 250 East Superior Street, where Prentice Women’s Hospital is now). Where did your career take you next?

 

IT’S DIFFICULT TO GIVE ADVICE BECAUSE medicine has changed so much, but I would say that it’s important to continue learning. You should always be open to doing new and different things. You might find out you’re interested in public health or another area quite different from where you started.”

I went to Washington University in Saint Louis for a hematology fellowship, and then I came back to Chicago and practiced internal medicine and hematology at Wesley. After about 10 years, I went to a neighborhood health center in North Lawndale where I was head of the Department of Internal Medicine. Later I joined the staff at Mount Sinai Hospital, also on the West Side, and practiced there for about 15 years. After that, I moved with my husband to South Carolina, where the climate was better for his health. In 1989, I got my Master of Public Health degree at the University of South Carolina.

Why did you pivot to public health after practicing medicine for 30-plus years?

I had developed an interest in population health and the way medicine was organized and practiced and programs that were or weren’t available to people who needed them. And South Carolina was a very interesting place to do that — so different from Chicago — with its small towns, many of which had been abandoned when the mills closed. I just found at that point in my life, I was more interested in what was going on in the world around me rather than going into an office and seeing one patient after another.

How did you end up back at Northwestern?

After my husband died, I returned to Chicago. I talked to Philip Greenland, who was Northwestern’s chairman of Preventive Medicine at the time. It was 1995 and they were just starting the Program in Public Health, so I got involved in its accreditation. We always laughed at my title — I was “associate director in charge of special projects” — but it was very interesting work and I stayed until 2010, when I retired. Now I just do the fun things: attend the students’ final presentations, go to graduations and reunions. I also have a new scholarship student, who is in the MD/MPH program. I met him for the first time at Alumni Weekend. My previous scholarship student graduated last year. It’s always fun to get together with the students to find out what’s going on.

What advice do you have for young alumni just starting their careers in medicine?

It’s difficult to give advice because medicine has changed so much, but I would say that it’s important to continue learning. You should always be open to doing new and different things. You might find out you’re interested in public health or another area quite different from where you started.