Mary Ann Payne, MD, First Woman President of the New York Academy of Medicine

by Judith A. Salerno, MD, MS, President

During Women’s History Month, we at the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) are celebrating the contributions and accomplishments of women in medicine and health. Dr. Mary Ann Payne (1913–2010) broke new ground as the first woman to lead NYAM, serving as its 63rd president from 1987 to 1988. She stepped in at a critical time in NYAM’s history and successfully led the restructuring of the organization to better serve the health of the public in New York City.


“Mary Ann Payne,” painted by Neill Slaughter, 2011, at the New York Academy of Medicine

Mary Ann Payne was born on August 29, 1913, and grew up in Braddock Heights, Maryland. She attended Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, and then taught high school for four years after graduation. She then went on to further her education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where she received her MA and PhD in endocrinology, and finally to Cornell University Medical College where she graduated with an MD degree in 1945. Her entire medical career was spent at the college (now Weill Cornell Medicine), where she was a clinical professor of medicine and attending physician at New York Hospital.(1) Highlights of her early career included receiving the Major Arnold H. Golding Fellowship, for research on the mechanism of high blood pressure, and having an audience with Pope Pius XII in 1947.(2) Payne rose to become a member of the Board of Overseers of Weill Cornell. She also spent time working with the Communicable Disease Center, caring for members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes with hepatitis and treating tuberculosis among Alaska Natives.(3)

Payne became a Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1953 and served as a member of its Committee on Medical Education, vice president, and trustee. In 1987 she assumed the presidency as the first woman to hold that office. Hers was the third-to-last presidency under NYAM’s former structure.(4) Since 1847, the presidency had been a two-year honorary position. The incumbent was a Fellow and chiefly worked with other Fellows. By the early 20th century, NYAM staff reported to an executive director, and William Stubing had taken on that role in 1986. In the words of the official history, upon his hire he “visited a number of Foundation executives to discuss the potential of the Academy as an institution that could make a positive contribution towards alleviating health problems in the City. He was quite candid in his approach to these individuals, indicating the Academy had great potential that was not being achieved primarily due to its financial constraints.”(5) The trustees, the NYAM governing body responsible for fiscal affairs, led by Dr. Payne, secured the services of an outside consultant, Cambridge Associates, Inc., to review the organization’s finances. Its report recommended a series of reforms, which Payne and the trustees accepted in October 1987—a scant 10 days after Black Monday, when the stock market suffered a 25% drop in its value! NYAM’s financial reforms only pointed to a deeper problem within its structure, however. The same day that the trustees accepted the financial report, Payne reported to the Council—the NYAM governing body that oversaw its medical and public health activities—that “in her judgment, the Academy’s existing resources were insufficient to support its present program.”(6) Change was needed.

The Council set up a Committee on Strategic Planning with Payne as chair, tasked to “examine and redefine the Academy’s mission; review existing programs, consider new initiatives and establish new priorities.”(7) Everything was on the table! Cambridge Associates was reengaged to assist in this broader reassessment and provided a sobering report to the Council in March 1989. Addressing a lack of clear management structure, the report called for significant changes, most significantly establishing a full-time president with overall authority for the Academy and significantly reducing the large number of committees that had a hand in governance. The dual structure of a Council and a Board of Trustees would be eliminated, retaining just the Board. Although Payne’s presidential term had ended three months earlier, she continued to lead the process as chair of the Committee on Strategic Planning. Throughout 1989 the Fellows debated the proposals; they were overwhelmingly adopted at a special meeting on August 7, 1989. On July 1, 1990, Dr. Jeremiah A. Barondess took office under the new structure as the first full-time president of the New York Academy of Medicine.(8)


“Mary Ann Payne, M.D.” undated, published when she received the Academy Plaque in 1991. (“Academy Plaque,” 635.)

Mary Ann Payne retired in the late 1970s or 1980s—the date is not clear—while retaining attending privileges at New York Hospital. In retirement she undertook voyages to the Antarctic and Tierra del Fuego to help band penguins as a volunteer for the American Museum of Natural History.(9) NYAM honored her contributions with the Academy Plaque in 1991. At his presentation speech, Dr. Martin Cherkasky, former chair of the Board of Trustees, noted that “the very fact that she was able to overcome the conservatism of this body in matters of leadership indicates what a powerful, impressive figure she is.”(10) In 1998 Payne moved to a retirement home in Ithaca, New York, where she died on March 24, 2010.

_____

Notes

1. Obituary; “Academy Plaque.”

2. “Gets Golding Fellowship”; “Catholic Information from Abroad.”

3. Obituary.

4. Lieberman and Warshaw, 252.

5. Lieberman and Warshaw, 253.

6. Lieberman and Warshaw, 255.

7. Lieberman and Warshaw, 256.

8. Lieberman and Warshaw, 263–64, 272.

9. “Academy Plaque,” 636.

10. “Academy Plaque,” 634.

References

“Catholic Information from Abroad,” The Catholic Herald, 18 July 1947, p. 8: http://archive-uat.catholicherald.co.uk/article/18th-july-1947/8/catholic-information-from-abroad

“Gets Golding Fellowship for Medical Research: Mary Ann Payne,” The New York Times, January 9, 1949, p. 30: https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1949/01/07/84186377.html?pageNumber=30

Martin Cherkasky, MD, “Presentation of the Academy Plaque to Mary Ann Payne, M.D.,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 67 (Nov–Dec 1991): 634–37: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1809858/pdf/bullnyacadmed00011-0130.pdf

Marvin Lieberman and Leon J. Warshaw, The New York Academy of Medicine, 1947–1997: Enhancing the Health of the Public (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1998).

“Mary Ann Payne, M.D.” Obituary, The Miami Herald, via Legacy.com: https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/herald/obituary.aspx?n=mary-ann-payne&pid=143125822

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About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, part of the Academy Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curators, and the general public. The Center bases its work on the Library's historical collections, among the largest in this field in the United States and open to the public since 1878.

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