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Portraits honor education, science, medicine pioneers

Dec. 18, 2019, 4:38 PM


by Kathy Whitney

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine honored two pioneers for their historic contributions to education, science and medicine during a formal portrait unveiling at Langford Auditorium this week. The event, hosted by the Office of Diversity Affairs, was held as part of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Friends and family of Kathryn Edwards, MD, and the late John Fryer, MD, gathered to celebrate their myriad accomplishments.

Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of VUMC and Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, opened the event by welcoming guests before turning the program over to André Churchwell, MD, the Levi Watkins Jr. MD Professor and VUMC’s Chief Diversity Officer.

Honoree Kathryn Edwards, MD, (left) poses with family members at this week’s portrait unveiling. (photo by Joe Howell)

“We have honored VUSM heroes for years, and as such, have created a magnificent pantheon,” Churchwell said. “Our pantheon is the places and lecture halls where portraits of our heroes and heroines reside that will honor them for eternity. Upon assuming the role of Chief Diversity Officer a few years ago, Dean Balser and I met and determined it was time to populate our halls with heroes and heroines who look like the people we serve and the students we bring to this great school.”

Churchwell spoke on behalf of Edwards, Sarah H. Sell and Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair of Pediatrics. She joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1980 and over 40 years, she has tested and aided in the development of vaccines for H5 avian flu, pertussis, pneumococcus, smallpox, anthrax and numerous others.

“She has had extensive experience in leading NIH-funded multicenter initiatives, in designing and conducting pivotal Phase I, II and III clinical studies on vaccines and therapeutics…and in mentoring many who are here — young investigators and some not so young,” Churchwell said.

Among the accolades she has received, Edwards is the recipient of the 2020 John Howland Award, the highest honor given by the American Pediatric Society, and she received the 2018 Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific Achievement from the National Foundation for Infectious Disease.

Her group’s demonstration of the safety and effectiveness of both live and inactivated influenza vaccines in adults and children helped lead to recommendations that all children under 2 years of age should be immunized against flu each year.

Edwards and her colleagues also demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of acellular pertussis vaccines and published pivotal papers on rotavirus, malaria and other important vaccines. She has also established active population-based surveillance to monitor the impact of new vaccines on disease burden and to assess the etiology and burden of pneumonia in children and adults.

“It is our great pleasure and honor to award this to our own Dr. Kathy Edwards,” Churchwell said.

Del Ray Zimmerman, left, André Churchwell, MD, and Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, pose with the portrait of John Fryer, MD.
Del Ray Zimmerman, left, André Churchwell, MD, and Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, pose with the portrait of John Fryer, MD. (photo by Joe Howell)

Fryer was an American psychiatrist and gay rights activist. He received his medical degree from Vanderbilt in 1962. In 1972, he gave a famed speech to the American Psychiatric Association where he implored its membership to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and in 1973 it did. Fryer died in 2003.

“The work I do as the director of the Vanderbilt Program for LGBTQ Health would not be possible had it not been for Dr. Fryer highlighting the significant disparities that LGBTQ people have faced in health care, both as patients and providers,” said Del Ray Zimmerman, director of the VUMC Office for Diversity Affairs and LGBTQ Health.

Zimmerman recounted that Fryer was fired from three jobs because of his sexuality before joining the faculty at Temple University in 1967.

“Dr. Fryer retired from Temple in 2000. While it was customary for tenured faculty to receive a chair emblazoned with the school’s crest upon retirement, Dr. Fryer was overlooked for his gift — despite dual appointments in psychiatry and family medicine — most likely because of lingering homophobia in the psychiatry department,” Zimmerman said.

“It is all the more fitting then that we honor Dr. Fryer here at Vanderbilt today, at Christmastime, which was his favorite time of the year, with this portrait that will hang at Vanderbilt to inspire young physicians who walk in his stead.”

The new portraits will hang alongside those of other institutional leaders in Light Hall.

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