Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University

Living History
Reflections from Jefferson’s First Female Surgical Resident

After graduating as part of the sixth class of the School of Medicine in Puerto Rico, I applied to the Graduate Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for an internship in Internal Medicine. As I reached the end of my internship, I realized I wanted to heal people rapidly and became interested in becoming a surgeon. In 1961, following an interview with Dr. John H. Gibbon, Jr. at Jefferson Medical College, I was accepted as the first woman join their residency in General Surgery.

Everyone was always very kind, including my fellow residents. They knew I would be coming back to Puerto Rico, where well-trained surgeons are always in demand (and I wouldn’t be competing with anyone!). I will always remember Dr. John Y. Templeton, who remains the best surgeon I have ever met. I also revered Dr. Thomas Nealon and Dr. Walter Ballinger, as well as those of the younger generation like Dr. Jerry Marks, who still comes and visits in Puerto Rico once in a while.

First Female Surgical ResidentIn February 2016, Jefferson colorectal surgeon Gerald A. Isenberg, MD, FACS, met someone who made history at Jefferson: Angela A. Ramirez-Irizarry, MD, FACS, FACPS, DABPS. They met at the American College of Surgeons’ 66th Annual Puerto Rico Chapter Meeting in San Juan.

One experience I’ll never forget happened early in my residency. Each year, Dr. Gibbon invited all of his first-year residents to have dinner at the Union Club in Philadelphia. But the front door featured a sign that no Democrat, woman or Negro could enter. Undeterred, Dr. Gibbon simply avoided that door, and we all entered together through the kitchen. (The food was good.)

As I approached the end of my residency, I faced a dilemma. I knew that if I returned to Puerto Rico as a general surgeon, people might not trust me simply because I am a woman. I went to the Philadelphia Public Library to research other subspecialties. I came upon an article written for laypeople about how a person’s life had been changed by reconstructive surgery performed by a plastic surgeon. With the clock ticking, I was fortunate to spot a last-minute call for residents by Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. I applied and was accepted as the first Puerto Rican in that program.

Although Mount Sinai asked me to join their attending staff, I had to return to Puerto Rico. My husband, an orthopedic surgeon, had just died in a car accident. I was alone with our only surviving child, who these days is an MD/PhD from the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.

Upon my return to the island, I became its first female Board-certified surgeon in plastic, reconstructive and hand surgery—marking the beginning of a long and wonderful career. These days, I’m 80 years old and still a practicing surgeon in the largest community hospital on this side of the island. As part of the wound care team, I’m focusing mostly on reconstructive surgery, but I also teach interns and residents. What keeps me going is my belief that as long as surgeons have their minds and their health, there’s no reason to quit. We owe it to ourselves, to our patients and to our mentors.

—Angela A. Ramirez-Irizarry, MD, FACS

Charles J. Yeo, MD

Charles J. Yeo, MD
Chair, Department of Surgery
Samuel D. Gross Professor

Karen Chojnacki, MD

Karen Chojnacki, MD
Program Director

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Francesco Palazzo, MD
Associate Program Director

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Joshua Marks, MD
Assistant Program Director

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Donna Guinto, CTAGME
Program Coordinator

We participate in the National Residency Match Program and utilize the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS).

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