December 18, 2009

Pharmacology celebrates trailblazing first graduate

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On hand to help celebrate were, from left, Heidi Hamm, Ph.D., Joey Barnett, Ph.D., Lee Limbird, Ph.D., and Seva Gurevich, Ph.D. (photo by Joe Howell)

Pharmacology celebrates trailblazing first graduate

This year, the Department of Pharmacology celebrates the 75th anniversary of awarding its first Doctor of Philosophy degree. A remarkable milestone achieved by an even more remarkable woman — Jessie T. Cutler.

“Clearly, science was more of a male-dominated profession at the time,” said Joey Barnett, Ph.D., director of Graduate Studies in Pharmacology. “It says something about the leaders at the time. Despite societal norms and pressure, they were willing to recognize and reward her passion for science without any regard to gender.”

Cutler was born in Wisconsin in 1902 and educated at Grinnell College and Wellesley College before becoming a research assistant at Vanderbilt in 1926. Her mentor was Paul Lamson, M.D., who organized the department and served as its first chair, from 1925 to 1952.

Her 1934 Ph.D. thesis, titled “The Carbohydrate Metabolism of the Goat,” was approved by legends of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, including Canby Robinson, M.D., and Ernest Goodpasture, M.D.

Just after receiving her Ph.D., Cutler married Paul Harwood, an assistant pharmacologist at Vanderbilt, and the pair moved to the Washington, D.C., area. Cutler is cited on one of her husband's research projects with the U.S. Bureau of Animal Industry, but other scientific work before her death in 1980 is unknown.

Regardless, she opened the door for other great female leaders in Pharmacology. For the past 18 years, the department has been chaired by a woman — first Lee Limbird, Ph.D., then Elaine Sanders-Bush, Ph.D., and now Heidi Hamm, Ph.D.

“It's fascinating to think what kind of person she must have been to be our first Ph.D. and to have that thesis committee support her,” Hamm said.
“Vanderbilt has always been a very positive place focused on science and solving problems, not what people look like,” Limbird added.

The Pharmacology program has had 229 total graduates since the first in 1934.