Dr. Helen M. Ranney, a hematologist whose experiments in the 1950s elucidated the genetic basis of sickle cell disease, an inherited form of anemia that affects one in 500 African-Americans, died on April 5 in San Diego. She was 89.Rest in peace, Dr. Ranney.
Her death was announced by the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine.
Dr. Ranney was a faculty member there for more than 30 years and a former head of the department of medicine, the first woman at a major American medical school to hold that post.
As a postdoctoral student in hematology more than 50 years ago, Dr. Ranney developed a simple method of distinguishing normal hemoglobin, the iron-rich protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen, from the abnormal hemoglobin found in patients with sickle cell disease.
By comparing unaffected family members with relatives with the illness, Dr. Ranney provided early evidence that inherited defects in the structure of hemoglobin were responsible for sickle cell disease.
Up to this point, scientists recognized that sickle cell disease ran in families, but the underlying mechanism of it was not well understood.
Besides illuminating the genetics of sickle cell, Dr. Ranney’s research provided clinicians with a simple method of testing for the disease in newborns, who usually do not develop anemia and other symptoms of the illness until they are 5 months old.
“It immediately gave us a way to diagnose sickle cell,” said Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, a hematologist and chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Diego. “The differences in hemoglobin were an important insight from her studies.”
Helen Margaret Ranney was born on April 12, 1920, in Summerhill, N.Y. Her father was a dairy farmer; her mother, a schoolteacher.
She entered Barnard College with plans to study law, but soon shifted her sights toward medicine, drawn by the notion that physicians can fix the problems they study. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1941, she applied to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons but was rejected. She took a job as a laboratory technician, acquiring the skills she would later use in her research.
She reapplied to Columbia, was accepted and received her medical degree in 1947, one of five women in a class of 120 students. She remained at Columbia for postgraduate training, and during this time conducted her groundbreaking sickle cell disease research.
She went on to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, where she continued her hemoglobin research and became a professor in 1965. After a stint at the State University of New York, Buffalo, she moved to the University of California, San Diego, where she became chairwoman of its department of medicine in 1973. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences the same year.
Dr. Ranney headed the department of medicine for 13 years. From 1986 to 1991, she was a distinguished physician of the Veterans Administration, the first woman to hold that post. For several years after that, she was a board member and an adviser to the Alliance Pharmaceutical Corporation, a biotechnology company in San Diego working on a blood substitute. At her death she was a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego.
Her survivors include two nieces, Alesia Ranney-Marinelli of Katonah, N.Y., and Patricia Ranney of Ballston Lake, N.Y.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Dr. Ranney may be one of the coolest women I had never heard of until her death. Reading the NYT's notice, prompted me to share her story with you.