Although today women make up half of all medical school graduates, their numbers are vanishingly small in specialized fields — only 5 percent of neurosurgeons, for example, are female.
“Dr. Venes helped to define the field of pediatric neurosurgery.”
That perspective makes the achievements of the late Dr. Joan Lisbeth Venes ’56 all the more remarkable. In the 1960s, she was one of only two women certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery. “Dr. Venes was a legendary figure,” said Alan R. Cohen, secretary of the American Society of Pediatric Neurosurgeons. “She helped to define the field of pediatric neurosurgery.”
Venes grew up in a blue-collar, immigrant neighborhood in Queens. According to her sister, Virginia Riffey, the family lived in poverty. But Venes was driven to make a change — and to help children, especially.
Venes was the first in her neighborhood to attend college, graduating from Wagner in 1956 with a degree in nursing. She started her career as an emergency room charge nurse, but she wanted more. “Nursing tended to become more and more of an administrative thing,” she said. “I very quickly saw that the things which interested me in medicine just weren’t in nursing.”
She earned her M.D. with high honors from the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in 1966. She found her calling during her surgical residency, when she witnessed the sudden death of a bright young boy who was being treated in the hospital for hydrocephalus.
Joan became the first woman neurosurgery resident at Yale. She then joined a private practice in Dallas, and later taught neurological surgery at the University of Michigan medical school. (She was the first female pediatric neurosurgeon at Michigan, where an annual lectureship in pediatric neurosurgery is named for her.) In 1990, she became a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellow, and served as a health policy assistant for the U.S. Senate. That year, she was also named one of Wagner’s 500 most successful alums ever.
She made many significant contributions to her field through research and practice. She was the third woman to be admitted to the American Board of Neurological Surgery and a founding member of the American Society of Pediatric Neurosurgeons. Her proudest possessions, however, were the letters she received from children and parents thanking her for her lifesaving care.
Venes spent her retirement years in Maryland and California, and died on March 31, 2010.