Medicine and motherhood
By MELANIE STAWICKI AZAM
Jean Bennett, M.D., recalled the advice she received from UF’s first College of Medicine Dean George T. Harrell, M.D., when she enrolled in medical school in 1956: Don’t marry a doctor, don’t marry in medical school and wait to start a family until after establishing a practice.
With a laugh, Bennett said, “I married a medical student my junior year and when I graduated, I was six months pregnant.”
However, the first female graduate of UF’s College of Medicine was determined to have a long, successful career working as a physician, while raising two children.
“I never wanted to do anything in life except be a doctor and a mother,” she told an auditorium of medical students during her Sept. 8 lecture at the UF College of Medicine. The talk was part of the monthly History of Medicine lecture series.
Bennett, a member of the college’s charter class of 1960, practiced as a pediatrician for more than 40 years in Clearwater. She was president of the medical staff at Morton F. Plant Hospital in Clearwater, named Florida Pediatrician of the Year in 1984 by the American Academy of Pediatrics and was inducted to the UF COM Wall of Fame in 1988.
“Medical education is a privilege, not an entitlement,” she said. “ I never interrupted my residency nor my practice at any time.”
When she gave birth to her first child, she was given two weeks maternity leave, which was her two weeks paid vacation for the entire year. She had her second child during the senior year of her pediatrics residency.
Bennett said it was her calling to be a doctor and to commit herself to that job fully. She values the education she received and feels it was her obligation to use the skills and knowledge she attained to the maximum. So, sometimes work and family went together.
“When I made house calls, I’d take the children with me — and the dog,” she said. “People loved it.”
But she admitted that she also needed a support system to succeed in both roles. She hired a caretaker for her children that she could trust, had a supportive husband and employed excellent support staff at her practice that she treated well. Her parents also lived nearby and helped out.
Breakfast and dinner were eaten together as a family and time was carved out for church, the children’s sporting events and other activities, like UF athletics. Bennett said she’s only missed three Gator football games since 1960.
At the office, it is important for physicians not to get discouraged and lose “the joy of practicing medicine,” Bennett said. Sometimes, it is necessary to hire people to deal with the finances and paperwork of a practice, so a physician can focus on the patients.
Bennett, who is originally from West Virginia where her father was a coal miner, was determined to succeed from the start. When her family dropped her off at medical school, she recalled her dad telling her, “Babe, God don’t sponsor no flops.”
She was one of three women in her class at the new medical school, but she said she felt no discrimination at school or in the workplace.
“From the very outset, the playing field at this medical school was even,” she said. “I was never given anything as a woman and I wasn’t taken from either.”
The faculty consisted of many young doctors, who were “not yet established, but had potential and possibilities,” she recalled. One of the youngest, Richard Smith, M.D., the college’s founding pediatrics chairman, was the reason Bennett became a pediatrician.
“I said, ‘Please God, let me be one-tenth as good as he is’ – and I never looked back,” she said.
Medical school was quite different 50 years ago. Students were transported to clinical sites in Lake City and Jacksonville on an old bus, discarded by the athletic department, nicknamed “The Blue Goose.” Children died from leukemia, tetanus and other conditions that now have much improved treatments. Conditions like intestinal worms and croup in children were common.
But some things haven’t changed. At the UF College of Medicine, it was ingrained in her that a patient was a person, not a disease, and doctors needed to sit down and listen, Bennett said.
“Understand the practice of medicine is an art, simply coupled with the tools of science,” she said.