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Audrey Penn (1934-  )

A trailblazer in neurology and medicine, Audrey Shields Penn was one of the first Black residency-trained neurologists; the first Black and the first female president of the American Neurological Association; and the first Black acting director of a branch of the National Institute of Health.

Penn was born November 9th, 1934, and grew up in New York City, attending Fieldston School in the Bronx, where she played basketball and hockey. In 1956, she received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Swarthmore College – where she played field hockey, basketball and softball, played violin in the orchestra, and was a member of the student council. She is thought to be the first Black woman to play varsity sports at Swarthmore, and later, in 1970, became the first Black member of the Swarthmore College Board of Managers. 

She won the Swarthmore Lucretia Mott Fellowship for graduate study at Columbia University, where she studied medicine – one of only a handful of women and even fewer minorities in her class of 1960, and a member of the prestigious national medical honor society, Alpha Omega Alpha. 

 

After her intern year at the Bronx Municipal Hospital Center, Penn returned to Columbia for her neurology residency, graduating in 1964. Another Black female neurologist, Ana Judith Román-García, finished her residency at the University of Puerto Rico the same year – making these two women the first Black female residency-trained neurologists.

Following residency, Penn was selected to be a National Institute of Health National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) special fellow, and went to the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied immune-mediated neuromuscular disease, specializing in myasthenia gravis. She was promoted to associate professor there in 1972, and returned to Columbia as a full professor in 1982. 

 

In 1994, Penn was elected the first Black and the first female president of the American Neurological Association (ANA). During her years as vice president of the ANA and her one-year term as president, she worked to increase diversity and inclusion within the organization.

 

In 1995, she was named Deputy Director of the NINDS. She was the Acting Director of NINDS from January to July of 1998, and again from February 2001 to September 2003 – the first Black woman to take this role. In 2006, Penn stepped down from her position as deputy director. In the NIH Office of Minority Health and Research, she developed the Specialized Neuroscience Research Programs (SNRP) – a program to attract and develop neurologists and neuroscientists from under-represented backgrounds. 

 

Penn credits Lewis P. “Bud” Rowland (1925-2017) (former chair of the department of neurology at Columbia) as one of her primary mentors. His wife, Esther Rowland (1926- ), former associate dean at Barnard College, recalled asking Penn to speak to young women who were interested in studying medicine. She says Penn told them never to ask for special favors. She describes Penn as a perfectionist who did excellent work, did not try to impress others, and did not offer excuses – and as someone who always loved sports, and knew all the current baseball and basketball statistics.  

 

In 2022, Penn funded an annual scholarship to Virginia State University, in honor of her aunt, Otelia Roberta Shields Howard (1900-1945), a former English professor at the historically Black university. 

Essay by Alexis Simpkins, MD, PhD and Alison Christy, MD, PhD