Dr. Jeanette Pullen receives the Lifetime Achievement Award during a reunion ceremony honoring the School of Medicine Class of 1961.
Dr. Jeanette Pullen, the recipient of the Tulane University School of Medicine Class of 1961 Lifetime Achievement Award, reads aloud from one of her original textbooks during a reunion brunch May 13. The book cost $6.75 at the bookstore, she noted, and the only textbook from the time that might still be relevant is Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy, she joked. "I have the bad habit of never throwing things away." (Photo by Pat Garin)
When Dr. Jeanette Pullen graduated from the Tulane School of Medicine in 1961, it was exceedingly rare for a child to survive a cancer diagnosis. Fifty years later, survival is the norm, thanks to decades of collaborative research Pullen helped lead, making her a fitting recipient for this year's Tulane Medical Alumni Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
A mere eight years after graduating from Tulane, Pullen returned to her native Mississippi to head both the newly-established department of pediatric hematology/oncology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Mississippi Children’s Cancer Center. There, she would lead the clinic's participation in national research efforts to understand children’s acute lymphocytic leukemia, coordinating studies of the disease for 25 years.
The work of Pullen and her peers has been "one of the great success stories of cancer treatment," according to the National Cancer Institute. Fewer than 5 percent of children diagnosed with that type of leukemia in the 1960s survived for five years; today, that figure has grown to 85 percent.
At the School of Medicine Class of 1961 50th reunion brunch held May 13, Pullen told her classmates that while treating children has been the most gratifying part of her career, she is amazed by the results of five decades of medical breakthroughs.
"It’s really mind-boggling for me to think of all the new information that's been discovered in just about every field of medicine since we graduated in 1961," Pullen said. "I'm not sure we'd even heard of molecular biology."
It is a remarkable journey for a country girl from Kosciusko, Miss., a tiny hamlet on the Natchez Trace. Pullen never lost her rural roots; classmate and friend Dr. Janice Stratton recalls an invitation to Pullen's home for Thanksgiving dinner when they were in medical school together.
"She could hardly wait to go home so she could go squirrel hunting," said Stratton, who nominated Pullen for the award.
But it was also a remarkable achievement for a woman of that era, and few of Pullen's peers in the late 1950s would have imagined a woman could show such leadership. She was one of only six women in her class of about 125, and that was a high number for the time – the classes a year before and after had only one woman each.
In the School of Medicine today, where 52 percent of the incoming class is female, those days are probably difficult to imagine, Stratton said.
"When I came, I was asked why I was taking the place of a man, because surely I would be out having babies," Stratton said. "I don't think they'd ask that question now."
Pullen was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award May 13 during a ceremony honoring members of the School of Medicine Class of 1961 with their 50-year diplomas, a reunion tradition now in its 38th year. She is only the second woman to win it, after the Class of 1958's Dr. Dorothy Bainton, a vice chancellor at the University of California at San Francisco, said Cynthia Hayes, director of Tulane medical alumni relations.
Pullen's class has been particularly generous in giving back to the university. As of this year's reunion, 27 members of the class had given $38,000 for the Class of 1961's gift, said Dr. John Moffett, the 50th reunion class gift chair.
That dedication to the university, said Dean Benjamin Sachs as he addressed the doctors during the ceremony, is precisely what brought the School of Medicine back from the brink of post-Katrina disaster five short years ago.
"I fundamentally believe that where Tulane is today is clearly better than it was pre-Katrina, which is depending on the shoulders of giants in previous generations of Tulanians who have supported our medical school. If it wasn't for classes like you and all the other generations of classes of medical school graduates who stepped up to the plate after Katrina and helped the school recover, I don't know where we would be," Sachs said. "So we owe each one of you a deep sense of gratitude. Not only have you aided the survival of the Tulane School of Medicine, you are also helping us reorganize and redirect health care delivery in the city."
R.M. Morris is a writer in the Office of Development.
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