School of Medicine’s First Female Physicians

School of Medicine's First Female Physicians

In 1981, Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine graduated its first class of medical students.  Only three of the new physicians were women. Sandy Joseph, Brenda Smith and Nina Smith were pioneers in a traditionally male-dominated field.  During Women’s History Month, they reflected on their time in medical school. 


Sandy Joseph, MD

Family Medicine 

What was it like being a female physician when you first started? How does it compare to today?

“It was a unique and special feeling that I was among a privileged few to pursue this calling in a very competitive environment. From the minute I picked up my registered acceptance letter from the post office, I knew this was God’s plan for me, regardless of my gender. While, at the time, female doctors were viewed as being an exception to the rule, now female physicians are very much an integral part of the medical delivery system, often providing a ‘softer touch’ in the healing process. As one patient told me ‘If you want to get well, get a female doctor!’” 

Who were some of the female role models in your life? 

“Dr. Nancy Scher was tasked with teaching physical diagnosis to the three female students at a  time when it was an almost all male hospital environment. She demonstrated grace, sympathy and professionalism and was an example of how a female physician could also have a family. Dr. Loraine Rubis was one of the first heart surgeons in Huntington. Her dedication to the profession was exemplified by her response to my question about how busy she was. I asked: ‘Is your whole life like this?’ She replied: ‘This IS my life!’ Dr. Sarah McCarty was in the pioneer group of interns who cast their nets into unknown waters of a new residency program in which they functioned as senior residents from day one. Her perseverance in the face of a challenging program still resonates in my memory.  Most of all, my dear mother prayed and cooked and gave me encouraging words throughout the entire process was  No matter the hour, she always had positive words.  And despite my parents being ‘old country,’ they never discouraged me from this endeavor because ‘I was a girl.’” 

Did you face any prejudice? How did you overcome it? 

“The veterans [hospital patients] were highly respectful of us. I don’t feel that I experienced prejudice from any patients other than a very few flirtatious remarks, which I chose to ignore, while continuing to practice good patient care. This attitude rapidly cleared the air of any further remarks. The humorous attempts to embarrass females at that time were an accepted part of being amongst a bunch of guys. I chose to either laugh along or ignore it. The stellar academic performance of the female group, however, left very little if any room for prejudice, as it was obvious from early on that we could compete. Hopefully, this was an encouragement for the future female medical students. Looking back it was a wonderful experience, and I feel blessed and privileged to have had this opportunity.” 

Brenda Smith, MD


What was it like being a female physician when you first started? 

“We were viewed as that, female physicians. Not physicians, but female physicians. Instead of being given the automatic respect that male physicians were given, as females, we had to earn that respect. While most of my fellow students, professors and administration accepted me as an equal, it was clear that some felt that I didn’t belong. I was even told by one person that I was taking a spot in medical school that a man should have. Over time, as more and more women have entered medical school, become physicians and have proven their worth, that attitude has significantly changed.” 

 Who were some of the female role models in your life? 

“Unfortunately, there were few women in medicine 40 years ago to serve as role models. Dr. Susan DeMesquita of physiology was always willing to talk and listen. Dr. Ruth Harris also had good advice for us. Dr. Nancy Scher was another role model for me. She was younger than most of the faculty and easy to talk to.” 

What advice would you sharing to aspiring female physicians? 

“Medicine is a rigorous undertaking. You will need to work hard.  Sometimes you will literally have someone’s life in your hands.  Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses. Find an enjoyable way to relieve the stress.” 

Did you face any prejudice? How did you overcome it? 

“Yes. There is no way to change someone’s mind. I wanted to be a physician, so I studied and worked hard to reach my goal. I didn’t let the opinion or prejudice of a few people stop me from reaching my goal.” 

Nina Smith, MD 


“Truly it has not been an easy journey as a female, but I would do it all again! I know things would be easier today. I probably would have been a graduate of the Naval Academy or West Point.  Women today have opportunities I never could obtained 40 years ago.”  

What was it like being a female physician when you first started? How does it compare to today? 

“As a female physician and medical student, I felt proud and qualified to be a doctor. It was like ice skating on a lake. The success was exciting and rewarding, but I had to watch for ‘thin ice.’  The thin ice was the unfair expectations or obstacles placed by others that was individualized for a female. Thin ice was those who saw women as unequal to men in the same career.  Women before me had struggled and blazed a path that had the communities welcoming women as physicians. The Ohio State University OB/GYN program recruited and welcomed me as the second female out of 26 faculty physicians. However, it was not all fair and equal. You had to choose your battles. Today, the ratio of female to male physicians is more balanced. It is no longer a unique or solitude position. The new challenge to women is it is a competitive world in medicine. A successful woman can build resentment with her male and female physicians instead of support. You have to learn who your friends are and try to make your enemies your friend. You can have children and a successful career. It is much easier to enjoy your small children with a full-time nanny!” 

Who were some of the female role models in your life? 

“In medical school, we were lucky to have Dr. Nancy Scher and Dr. Susan DeMesquita who supported us and led by example. They gave extra advice on survival in the medical world. I had parents who supported me and believed in me. My mother played college basketball from 1938-1940. She was an independent and successful woman ahead of her time. My father believed women were equally qualified as men for any job. I was given the same opportunities as my older brothers.” 

 What advice would you sharing to aspiring female physicians? 

“It is a rewarding career and worth the hard work. You will be required to make hard decisions at times for your responsibility as a physician. You will be constantly trying to balance career, family and time for yourself. For example, I had a successful practice and raised three very active children. I was not in a golf league, however, until after I turned 60! I would do it all over, but I wish I could slow down the time.” 

Did you face any prejudice? How did you overcome it? 

“Of course, I did. I felt like I had to give 150% to be equal to the men. I felt every task I performed was scrutinized for mistakes. I worked extra call to make up time off for maternity leave. I was assigned more holidays. Chief residents took my cases I had worked up for the ER. Others noticed, however, and rewarded my endurance and work. I found physicians to support me. The more success I accomplished, the more I had to watch for obstacles planted by those with resentment. I learned to say little, watch carefully and keep a positive attitude. Life is not what happens to you but how you react to what happens. A career is like a house. The house has many doors. When the front door is locked, find another open door. I just kept working hard to accomplish my goals. I am so thankful I was chosen for the Marshall University School of Medicine Class of 1981!” 



Marshall Health

Marshall Health is the academic medical team of the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.