Lifting as We Climb
By Kris Willcox
Dr. Vivian Pinn has been among the most recognizable names in the Tufts community for fifty years, and a model of achievement and leadership in American medicine. For many Tufts alumni, Dr. Pinn is also a personal hero—a living example of a compassionate physician, a wise mentor, and a true friend.
At Tufts, Dr. Pinn served as assistant professor of pathology, and assistant dean of student affairs from 1974 to 1982. She went on to become the first African American woman to chair an academic department of pathology, at Howard University College of Medicine, and the first full-time director of the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health. She has received many awards and distinguished appointments and in 2011, a group of her colleagues and former Tufts students created the Vivian W. Pinn, MD, Scholarship, with a focus on supporting students from populations under-represented in medicine. On April 11, 2021, Tufts will mark the scholarship’s 10th anniversary with a virtual celebration. Ana Lopes Johnson, MD, M01, a member of the planning committee, says that the Pinn Scholarship is the perfect way to honor Dr. Pinn, “because she is dedicated to lifting every voice, having everyone at the table, and promoting equity and equality.”
“Vivian Pinn has been my inspiration, all my life,” says Lynette Charity, MD, M78. “I grew up in the segregated south, during the 1950’s and 60’s,” she recalls, under the pressures of poverty and racism. Upon graduating from Chatham University, she was thrilled to land an interview at Tufts medical school, with Dr. Vivian Pinn.
”Dr. Pinn is the embodiment of a true mentor, a true physician leader. . . a woman of color who showed us that anything is possible.” In many ways, says Dr. Charity, “she was a mother” to the Black students she mentored, and helped them build a supportive community: “She would say, ‘Listen, all of you are here to take care of all of you. Remember that.’”
When the death of her father, and a subsequent depression, nearly ended Dr. Charity’s medical education, Dr. Pinn’s support was critical. She remembers the day that Dr. Pinn called her home and told her mother, “’Mrs. Charity, you send Lynette back to us. We will get her through this.’ Long story short, I went on to graduate with my class. And it was all due to Dr. Pinn.”
Now retired from a career in anesthesiology, she has embarked on new paths, as a stand-up comedian, and a motivational speaker. Dr. Pinn remains a source of inspiration.
“There are some people who touch your heart, touch your mind, touch your being-- people you carry with you for the rest of your life. And that's what I do with Dr. Pinn.”
“Superhero” is how Ana Lopes Johnson, MD, M01, describes Dr. Pinn. Now a family physician in Los Angles, she grew up in New England’s large Cape Verdean community. “My dad had Parkinson's disease, so our family went through many challenges,” she remembers. “There weren't many doctors that looked like me, or could speak another language.” Her first-year anatomy class surfaced the grief of her father’s death, but with support from Tufts, that experience became part of her healing, and now helps her serve her patients.
As a Tufts student, she knew of Dr. Pinn, and hoped to meet her. Their paths crossed when Dr. Pinn was among the presenters of Dr. Lopes Johnson’s National Medical Fellowship, and again when Dr. Pinn received a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Black Women Physicians, for which Dr. Lopes Johnson served as president. Today, they serve together on Tufts’ alumni advisory board.
“We’re living in this moment in history where racism is coming to the forefront as a public health emergency,” she says, when gaps in health outcomes, and opportunity are starkly apparent. “Dr. Pinn has been pivotal in helping us to close those gaps.” When less than 2% of American physicians are Black women, she adds, the Pinn Scholarship’s mission to support students of color, “speaks volumes.” Her wish for all Pinn Scholars is to “continue to lift as they climb, and bring someone else forward, [because] we still have a lot more work to do.”
Malcolm Taylor, MD, M73, is past president of the Association of Black Cardiologists and recently retired from 42 years of practice in Jackson, Mississippi. He is proud to be among the Black physicians who studied at Tufts and returned to practice in the south. He credits leaders like Dr. Vivian Pinn with increasing the number of Black doctors in Mississippi. In 1969, when he graduated from Tougaloo College, and started medical school at Tufts, “there were only 30 or 35 black doctors in the entire state of Mississippi, and we represent 38% of the population.” Over time, the number of Tufts-trained Black physicians grew, bringing expertise in many specialties “that the state had never seen before in the black community.”
“Doctors—especially pathologists—are not the easiest people to talk to,” Dr. Taylor says with a laugh. “But Dr. Pinn was always easy to talk to,” in addition to being incredibly knowledgeable. “She became an integral part of the leadership of the National Medical Association,” and “did an outstanding job in her role at the NIH.” She also cultivated the network of black Tufts alumni, which has fostered “a sense of purpose and pride.” Dr. Pinn’s goal for her mentees was “to make sure, no matter what the stress or strain or financial hardships were, that you finished. So the scholarship is just a great reminder of the contribution she made, and continues to make, to Tufts.”
With the virtual celebration in their sights, the planning committee is excited to see growing momentum for the event, and the scholarship. New generations of students “need to see her history,” says Dr. Charity. “They need to see her [impact] at Tufts, to find inspiration to be the best that they can be.”
“Dr. Pinn is a pioneer,” adds Dr. Lopes Johnson, “so to honor her is really humbling.” She encourages others in the Tufts community to join them to celebrate the scholarship, and help it grow. “Give! Give what you can,” and know that no matter the amount, your support “makes a world of difference.”
To make a gift to the Vivian W. Pinn, MD, Scholarship, go to: go.tufts.edu/PinnScholarship. For more information and to register for the online celebration on Zoom on Sunday, April 11, 2021 at 4:00 pm Eastern Time, go to go.tufts.edu/PinnEvent.