Her first love was opera, but when an audition with a famous opera singer fell through, Lucy Rorke-Adams decided she would become a doctor.
It’s a decision she’s never regretted over the course of her six-decade long career. The petite woman with white hair just retired from her post as a neuropathologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Rorke-Adams is 87 years old.
She grew up in Minnesota as one of five girls, and was always curious about how things worked. She remembers going out after rain storms, and tearing apart worms to see what was inside. Her choice to pursue a career in medicine did not sit well with her mother.
“She was very much opposed because she said if you become a doctor, you’ll never get married, because men don’t like smart women,” said Rorke-Adams.
Undeterred, Rorke-Adams entered medical school in 1953, as one of five women in her class of 110 students.
She did get married, despite her mother’s warnings, and after graduation, her husband suggested that she should get into pathology, because as a specialist she’d be home more often. From there, her career took another turn. On her first day of residency at Philadelphia General Hospital, the head of pathology looked around the room, and walked over to her.
“He said ‘You’re the only girl here. Pediatrics is the province of ladies, and you have to do all of the pediatric autopsies.’ That would not be politically correct today, but I said ‘Yes, sir ‘and I did what I was told.
Rorke-Adams says the boss’ direction worked out well for her. “It focused my attention on pediatrics, and then when I elected to pursue a career in neuropathology, I focused on the problems in the nervous system of children and it all blossomed from there.”
Rorke-Adams’ career is one long string of stellar achievements, but she says she’s most proud of her role in advancing science around a specific type of brain tumor. As president of the American Association of Neuropathologists she challenged the findings of a famous colleague, the world’s leading expert on Medulloblastoma. She said her challenge, which many colleagues called shocking, resulted in a lot of new research on the topic.
“I’m very happy to say, that since then, this was in 1982, the basic scientists have learned a great deal about this tumor, such that now it’s been determined that there are four subtypes of this tumor, and the treatment is now being arranged so that the children will have more specific treatment rather than general treatment.”
Rorke-Adams says she wishes she were 35 years younger, because advances in medicine are happening so fast, and so many exciting and wonderful discoveries are happening every day.
For her next chapter, Rorke-Adams has no plans to slow her quest for knowledge.
“I’m going to exchange the microscope for the telescope, I know nothing about the stars, I know nothing about astronomy, and it has always fascinated me. My husband gave me a telescope for Christmas, and as soon as I settle down, I’ll start studying astronomy.”