Guion, Connie M. (1882–1971)

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Guion, Connie M. (1882–1971)

American physician and clinical educator in New York City for 50 years, who broke many barriers for women in medicine, becoming the first woman to be appointed professor of clinical medicine in the United States (1946) and the first female physician to have a hospital building named for her in her lifetime (1958). Pronunciation: GUY-on. Born Connie Myers Guion on August 29, 1882, on a farm near the small town of Lincolnton, North Carolina; died at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center on April 29, 1971; daughter of Benjamin Simmons Guion (a civil engineer and farmer) and Catherine Coatesworth (Caldwell) Guion; attended public school in Charlotte, North Carolina; graduated from Piedmont Seminary in Lincolnton, 1900; studied at Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts, 1900–02; graduated from Wellesley College, 1906, and Cornell University Medical College, 1917; never married; no children.


Elizabeth Blackwell citation from New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1949); first woman to receive the Award of Distinction, Cornell University Medical College Alumni Association (1951); Northfield Award for significant service from the Northfield Schools (1951); first woman elected honorary governor of the Society of the New York Hospital (1952); named Medical Woman of the Year by the American Medical Women's Association (1954); honorary doctorates from Wellesley College (1950), Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania (1953), Queens College (1957), and University of North Carolina (1965); Jane Addams Medal from Rockford College (1963).

Family moved to Charlotte, North Carolina (1892); taught chemistry at Vassar College (1906–08) and Sweet Briar College (1908–13); interned and assisted attending physician at Bellevue Hospital (1917–20); entered medical practice as assistant to Dr. Frank Meara (1919); served as attending physician at Booth Memorial Hospital (1920–26); was consulting physician at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1929–40s); served as chief of the medical clinic, Cornell University Medical College (1929–32); served as chief of the general medical clinic, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center (1932–52); was professor of clinical medicine, Cornell University Medical College (1946–51); was professor emeritus, Cornell University Medical College (1951–67); served as attending physician, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center (1943–49); was consultant in medicine, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center (1949–68); served as member of the medical board, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center (1947–66), member of the Sweet Briar College Board of Overseers (1950–69), chair of the Development Committee of the Board of Overseers at Sweet Briar College (1954–62), member of the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors (1956–69); saw the dedication of the Dr. Connie Guion Building at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center (1963). Published in various medical journals (1914–50).

As the women of the South struggled to rebuild their lives after the Civil War, many opportunities for employment and higher education opened for them that had previously been closed. New obligations also arose, including the need for women to help provide for extended families. In many respects, Connie Guion's family was typical of those in the postwar South that took advantage of these new trends. Her older sisters were employed—two as nurses and one as a clerk in the post office—and helped finance the college education of the younger siblings, including Connie. As the ninth of twelve children on a North Carolina farm that produced only enough for the Guions and a few tenant farmers, Connie's prospects might otherwise have been quite limited.

Connie Guion's parents, Benjamin Simmons Guion and Kate Caldwell Guion , were married in the small town of Lincolnton, North Carolina, in 1864 at the height of the Civil War. Benjamin Guion was a graduate of the University of North Carolina who worked as a civil engineer with the railroad, helping to keep the railroads open in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina during the war. Kate, the daughter of a prominent physician in Charlotte, was a high-spirited, independent 18-year-old at the time of their wedding. For the next ten years, they lived in Lincolnton where the first four daughters were born. In 1873, feeling the need to provide for their growing family, they bought a large farm three miles away where Connie was born in 1882.

Nobody would treat Connie Guion in a haphazard fashion, at least not in my time.

—Benjamin H. Kean, M.D.

Connie's ten years on the farm were a joy to her. Her experiences there engendered a lifelong love of nature, and she always felt refreshed by activities that renewed her contact with the earth, especially fishing. In her later years, she often mentioned how beautiful the land had been, and how loved, protected, and secure she felt as one of such a large family. Each child had the responsibility for certain farm chores, and each understood the need to work for the wellbeing of the entire family. This shared sense of purpose was typical of many Southern families during that era and was a factor in the later achievements of countless young Southerners.

As soon as Guion was old enough to run free on the farm, she delighted in following her three older brothers around, doing chores they disliked, such as picking tomato and tobacco worms from plants. In exchange, her brothers would let her hitch up the wagons and ride the mules. As she grew older, her responsibilities increased, and she occasionally drove the mule wagon into Lincolnton with a load of fruit to be exchanged for sugar and other commodities. By age nine, though Guion could hitch up and drive any wagon on the farm and could hang onto the neck of even the wildest colt or calf, she could neither read nor write. Although she was familiar with literature from listening as the adults read aloud from the works of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, and Shakespeare, she had never been to school. There were few public schools in rural areas of North Carolina; opportunities for the Guion children's education were limited to a small private academy in Lincolnton, run by two of Kate's cousins, Daisy and Mary Wood . The older children had gone there, but nine-year-old Connie had managed to avoid formal education.

After attending the Mary Wood School, the two oldest Guion girls left home in 1883 to study nursing, one of the new career opportunities opening for women. Their work helped support the family and also provided Connie with appealing stories of medical life. Connie's mother, however, was her most significant medical role model. Kate Guion regaled her daughter with stories of her paternal grandmother, who was a doctor in the fashion of the early 19th century, traveling around the North Carolina countryside with her herbs and salves whenever she was summoned, with one of her 11 sons perched on the back of her horse. Kate's father often went with his mother and later went to medical school. Kate apparently had the natural healing ability of her grandmother and some of her father's medical skills. Every morning, she would make the rounds of the Guion farm, tending to sick tenants and animals, usually with Connie at her heels. Connie gathered the white mud used for poultices and helped her mother pour castor oil into sick cows and mules. From watching Kate, Connie learned much about the art and practice of medicine and was soon convinced that she, too, would be a doctor.

Although her mother provided the medical inspiration, Connie's older sister Laura Guion (Haskell) was the one who enabled Connie to embark on the arduous road to medical school. In 1890, 19-year-old Laura left home to take a job in Charlotte at the post office; two years later, she had Connie come live with her at a boarding house to begin her education at the public school. The efforts of older women to encourage the advancement of daughters and younger siblings was common at this time in the South, as educator A.D. Mayo discovered during his southern sojourn in 1880–92. He was struck by "the push to the front of the better sort of Southern young, everywhere encouraged by the sympathy, support, sacrifice, toils, and prayers of the superior women of the elder generation at home." In Connie's case, Laura's resolve, financial support, and unwavering faith enabled Connie's own determination and intelligence to blossom. Laura's fiancé, Alexander Haskell, had to wait 13 years for Laura to set a wedding date, because she refused to consider marriage until she had seen to the education of her younger brothers and sisters. Alex Haskell said later that he thought there would never be an end to little Guions.

Alex, whose sister Mary had graduated from Wellesley College in the class of 1897, never ceased talking about the college, and Laura decided that Connie would go there. However, after attending a newly established private high school in Lincolnton for two years on a scholarship offered by a family friend, Connie was still unprepared for Wellesley. The secretary of Wellesley suggested that Connie undertake the necessary preparatory work at Northfield Seminary in Northfield, Massachusetts. The tuition was $110 per year while Laura's salary was $100 a month, but she was undaunted.

As she was the first to admit, Connie was never a brilliant student, just tenacious. She graduated from Wellesley in 1906, after four years of financial support from Laura, as well as a generous scholarship from the college. Just as Laura had postponed marriage, Connie delayed medical school to finance the college education of her two younger sisters. For seven years, Connie taught chemistry—at Vassar and newly founded Sweet Briar College—and worked on a master's degree in chemistry at Cornell University during the summers. By the time she entered Cornell University Medical College in 1913 on a full-tuition scholarship, she had just celebrated her 31st birthday and was more qualified for medical school than most of her male classmates.

During the years of Guion's medical career, the number of women admitted to medical schools was limited to about five percent. At many schools, such as Harvard, women were simply not admitted. Guion was one of three women in a class of twenty-four men at Cornell. In her later life, she often maintained that she had rarely experienced discrimination in her attempts to become a doctor or in her medical practice, except where biases against women were so ingrained that all women were affected. In those situations, she had to prove that she was as capable as any man, and she never hesitated to stand up for herself. On one occasion during medical school, when the urology professor attempted to bar the women students from the class, Guion responded that this was absolutely ridiculous since she expected to treat men as well as women in her medical practice. As usual, she prevailed.

After graduating first in her class in 1917, Guion spent two years of residency at Bellevue Hospital, one of the few hospitals that offered internships to women. Her start in private practice came when Frank Meara, a prominent consulting physician and one of Guion's professors at Cornell, invited her to become his associate. With the backing of Meara, one of New York's most respected physicians, Guion was able to overcome any reservations his patients may have had over being treated by a woman doctor. Soon she was attracting her own patients. At the same time, she began teaching clinical medicine at Cornell University Medical College, a career she continued for almost 50 years at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.

In 1929, Guion was appointed chief of the new Cornell Medical Clinic. This was a major achievement for a woman physician, the first of her many trailblazing accomplishments for women in medicine. The New York Times called her appointment "a landmark in the professional progress of her sex." Guion's work in outpatient clinical medicine, as a physician, administrator, and teacher, culminated in the medical center's decision in 1958 to name the new clinic building for her. Acknowledged in medical circles as "the Dean of women doctors," Guion was the first woman in the United States to receive this kind of honor.

Although Guion achieved much in the hierarchy of medicine, her private patients were equally important to her, and she had one of the largest practices in Manhattan. In an age when there were few practicing internists, and men, when given a choice, would usually choose a male physician, Guion had many male patients who felt comfortable with her. Among her patients were some of New York's most prominent citizens, including many associated with the theater: Vincent Astor, Pamela Churchill Harriman , John Hay Whitney and Betsey Cushing Whitney , Babe Paley , Mary Martin, Greta Garbo, Greer Garson, Jennifer Jones , and David O. Selznick. Her practice also included the grocer across the street and many of her patients' servants, all of whom received the same attention.

Like many career women of her generation, Guion preferred to avoid the kinds of restrictions that marriage and childbearing had imposed on her mother and older sisters. She liked men and enjoyed their company, but her life was devoted to medicine. Her sisters, brothers, nephews, nieces, friends, colleagues, and patients were her extended family. After putting her niece, Parkie McCombs , through medical school, Guion brought McCombs into her medical practice in 1930. They worked together until Guion's retirement in 1968 at age 86.

Throughout her life Guion lived modestly, giving much of her time and resources to causes that were important to her, especially the education of women. Inspired by Laura's example and grateful for her sacrifices, Guion in turn helped educate her nephews and nieces into the third generation. She encouraged many of her wealthy friends and patients to give to her favorite educational and medical causes. Guion's legacy endures in the scholarships, professorships, and awards that have been endowed in her name.

In the 1960s, Guion often remarked how rewarding her long life had been. Twenty years after her death, one of her younger colleagues, Dr. Marjorie Lewisohn , captured the essence of Guion's spirit:

Connie had this wonderful way of never feeling that being a woman was in any way inferior. She never gave you the feeling that being a woman was anything but a joy. And I think there are very few people, men or women, who have that quality of full investment of themselves in what they're doing. She really liked being Connie Guion.


Connie M. Guion Collection, and the Guion-McCombs Papers, Medical Archives, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, New York City.

Mayo, Amory Dwight. Southern Women in the Recent Educational Movement in the South. Edited by Dan T. Carter and Amy Friedlander. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

"The Reminiscences of Connie Guion," Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, New York City, 1958.

suggested reading:

Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Walsh, Mary Roth. Doctors Wanted: No Women Need Apply: Sexual Barriers in the Medical Profession, 1835–1975. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

Katherine G. Haskell , freelance writer and medical editor, Jeffersonville, Pennsylvania