Jessie L. Ternberg

Jessie L. Ternberg, MD, PhD, blazed a trail for women physicians in her nearly four decades as a researcher and pediatric surgeon. Going into the field at a time when women were discouraged from entering, she was the first female surgical resident at Barnes Hospital, the first female surgeon on Washington University’s School of Medicine faculty and the first woman elected head of its faculty council. Ternberg received an honorary doctor of science degree in 2008.


Making a name for women in medicine

During her tenure at the School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, she performed more than 500 operations a year. In addition, she led a surgical team in successfully separating two sets of twins joined at the pelvis, a very rare condition. Colleagues have described Ternberg’s surgeries as “works of art.”

Ternberg earned a bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College in 1946 with an eye on medical school. But scholarships were scarce, so she earned a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Texas at Austin in 1950. A year prior, she and Robert Eakin, Ph.D., reported their discovery of the mechanism by which Vitamin B-12 is absorbed in the intestine, helping to establish a cure for pernicious anemia.

Ternberg, who earned a medical degree from Washington University in 1953, joined the medical school faculty in 1959, and in 1971, she was appointed professor of surgery and associate professor of surgery in pediatrics. She became chief of pediatric surgery in 1972, and in 1975 she was named professor of surgery in pediatrics.

While at WUSTL, Ternberg studied free radicals using electron spin resonance and was able to show that differences in free radical levels exist between normal and cancerous tissues.