Smooth Operator

After five decades at Jefferson, Dr. Marion Siegman is both living and preserving its history

Every day, countless Philadelphians walk by Alexander Stirling Calder’s bronze statue of Samuel Gross on Jefferson’s Center City campus. They may recognize him as the so-called “Father of American Surgery,” but chances are many don’t know that the Japanese also credit him with introducing surgical instruments and ether to their physicians. Meanwhile, a block to the north, the name of John Gibbon graces another campus building. But as patients and doctors rush through its doors, do they pause to consider his remarkable contributions to the development of the heart-lung machine?  

If only they realized that an opportunity to learn more about these men—and women such as Nancy Szwec Czarnecki, MD ’65, the first female to matriculate to and graduate from Jefferson—is waiting for them at the Center City Archives and Special Collections in the Scott Memorial Library. The collection’s highlights include the oxygenator component from Dr. Gibbon’s original machine, a well-worn scalpel that belonged to Dr. Gross and is likely the one shown in Thomas Eakins’ celebrated painting The Gross Clinic, and rare books such as a first edition of the 16th century anatomy atlas De humani corporis fabrica, by A. Vesalius, donated by an alumnus and valued at more than $1 million. The space is an “over-stuffed jewel box,” says F. Michael Angelo, university archivist. “We handle thousands of research requests a year, but those who don’t use the archives don’t know about it at all.”

Enter Marion Siegman, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, who recently made a generous gift to the university to jump-start a planned expansion of the physical space and programming of the archives. “I’ve always felt that Jefferson is not just a place to work,” she says. “It has traditions and a history that one can easily connect to and appreciate—if you know about them.” As the university enjoys its rapid growth, she reminds us that to “understand where we are going, it helps to know where we have been.”

The reworked space will be named for Dr. Siegman, a beloved teacher, physiologist, and world-renowned expert in smooth muscles, the involuntary, non-striated drivers that regulate our blood vessels, gastrointestinal tract, and genito-urinary system. Just about any alum of the last five decades has taken the introductory course on physiology taught by Dr. Siegman, the university’s first female full professor and its first female chair of the Molecular Physiology and Biophysics Department. No wonder at this year’s commencement ceremonies, she received an Honorary Doctor of Science. “It was all rather exhilarating,” she says of the event. “I have to admit, it felt very good to be loved.”

Capping the honor (if you’ll pardon the pun) was the hooding, performed at Dr. Siegman’s request by Howard Weitz, MD ’78, the Bernard Segal Professor of Cardiology. “As a first-year medical student in 1974, I had Dr. Siegman as my professor,” Dr. Weitz says. “I have never left Jefferson, nor has she, and we have become very close friends. I think I became a medical educator because of her. She taught me the continued rewards and impact that teaching can offer.”

While Dr. Siegman says that coming to Jefferson was the “absolute best decision I ever made in my life,” she “never, ever thought” she’d be teaching. What she did realize from an early age was that she would pursue a career in medicine. Her father, a family practitioner, emigrated from Austria in 1927 with her mother and her toddler brother and established a practice in their Brooklyn home. Dr. Siegman was born a few years later and soon became a fixture in his office, which she now likens to her playground. 

“I was always curious about his machines,” she says. “He had one of the first electrocardiograms, and he taught me how to develop the huge films for chest X-rays. I also remember that when there was a smallpox outbreak and streams of patients were coming in for the vaccine, I acted as a kind of usher to keep everyone organized. All of this got me going.”

At Midwood High School, she signed up for projects at the biology club and then pursued her BA in biology from Newcomb College, the women’s college at Tulane University. After graduating, Dr. Siegman moved back to New York City and was soon entertaining college friends who visited the Big Apple. “One day, I took a cruise around Manhattan with a group of them,” she remembers, “and when we reached the East River, the guide pointed out the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. This was a Saturday; by Monday morning I was in their office applying for a job. By noon, I left with that job.” 

Dr. Siegman credits her years at the piano bench as convincing the eminent biologist Paul Alfred Weiss to hire her. “He had come from Austria, and so had my family,” she says. “But the ‘gimme’ was when he asked if I could type and then whether I had ever taken piano lessons. She did both. He wanted someone with strong, dexterous hands.” After a few years working in his lab researching cultured isolated cells, which was then a new technique, as well as electron microscopy, she moved on to Stockholm for further cell research, including electron microscopy for future Nobel Prize–winner Ulf von Euler, which compelled her to consider graduate school. “I wanted my own lab,” she says. “That was my motivating force. I was always being given projects to do, and managing the whole thing.” She ended up back in Brooklyn—at the State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center in Pharmacology—under the tutelage of future Nobel Prize–winner Robert Furchgott. “I was the first female student he ever admitted to the graduate program,” Dr. Siegman says with a laugh. “He nervously watched me the whole time. When I graduated, he smiled and said, ‘Thank God!’”

She stayed on for another year, doing postdoctoral research in smooth muscles. “Skeletal muscle biophysics was well known, of course,” she says, “and the study of cardiac muscles was in an embryonic stage. But virtually nothing was understood about smooth muscle mechanics. Her thesis advisor said, “You can’t study that; it’s for boys,” because it was mechanical. And that was a mistake. Mechanics didn’t scare her. “My hands never fail me,” she says.

When Dr. Siegman learned that Jefferson had a strong history in physiology, she packed her bags for Philadelphia. Early on, she had a breakthrough in researching smooth muscle, which is notoriously hard to study since its spontaneous contractions make mechanical parameters such as force production and shortening impossible to quantify. “My trick for keeping the tissue calm was to work not at body temperature but at 70 degrees,” she says. “This resulted in no deleterious effect and allowed us to do our experiments.” It was, she says, “kind of cool”—in both senses of the word.

“It never fails to amaze me how intrepid Marion has been since day one,” says Samantha Harris, PhD, a professor in cellular and molecular medicine and physiology at the University of Arizona who counts Dr. Siegman among her “staunchest advocates and mentors.” As Dr. Harris moves forward in her own career studying the molecular mechanisms of muscle contraction in the heart, she says, “My main takeaway from Marion will always be her fearlessness. She forged a direction that she found interesting and remained undeterred by what other people said. Her guiding principle was to follow the data and let it lead you to the story.”

Dr. Siegman’s own story is far from over. “I try to enjoy every day and have a balanced life,” she says. She still practices photography, a craft she learned at her father’s side all those years ago as they snapped images of newborns to present to besotted parents. And the city girl—she lives a few blocks from the Center City campus—has of late become a country lass, acquiring a second home in Bucks County. “I mowed the lawn just last week,” she says with a hint of pride. As she’s boned up on the region’s rich connections to Pennsylvania Impressionism, she’s become involved with the James Michener Museum and started collecting pieces by area artists. And while she no longer teaches, Dr. Siegman continues her research work. “I’m studying the remodeling of smooth muscles that occurs in diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes,” she says. “There’s still so much to learn.”  

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