Emory Report
August 25, 2008
Volume 61, Number 1



Emory Report homepage  

August 25, 2008
Love affair with the heart

By Sherry baker

Nanette Kass Wenger was one of only 10 women out of a class of 120 when she received her degree from Harvard Medical School in 1954. Women had a 10-year probationary period at Harvard that ended when her class graduated, and women at last were incorporated into the university charter.

But it never occurred to the high-spirited young New Yorker, a ballet-dancing, museum-loving daughter of Russian immigrants, that medical school, or being a woman in medicine, might be a problem.

“And it wasn’t. Trailblazing was exciting, and I was fortunate to have spectacular male mentors,” says the chief of cardiology at Grady Memorial Hospital. “I thoroughly enjoyed medical school. Coming into the clinics and applying to patients what we learned in the lecture halls was challenging, and we learned so much.”

As a new faculty member in the Department of Medicine in 1959, Wenger was one of the country’s rarities — a “lady doctor” and one of only a handful of female physicians at Emory. Emory department of medicine chair J. Willis Hurst welcomed Wenger with open arms when she joined the faculty.

“Dr. Hurst, who was initially and still is my mentor, had a gender-neutral approach to excellence,” says Wenger.

It also was the beginning of what she calls her “love affair” with her chosen specialty — studying, researching and treating the heart.

The longtime member of the Georgia Heart Association served as its first female president. Two awards are named in her honor: the Wenger Award for Service, created by the Department of Medicine, and the annual Wenger Awards for Excellence, presented by WomenHeart, a national patient-led organization that educates and advocates for women with heart disease.

While Wenger has penned hundreds of articles, chaired conferences for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the American Heart Association, and American College of Cardiology, and earned dozens of awards, the professional achievement that has brought her international recognition was changing a major paradigm in cardiology: the assumption that heart disease affects only men.

She also was one of the first physician-scientists to speak out about the under-representation of women in research studies and clinical trials.

Her 2005 book “Women and Heart Disease,” which she co-edited with British cardiologist Peter Collins, is the standard medical text on the subject.

“All of the studies derived from registries have shown that women with heart disease still remain under-treated,” Wenger says.

Consequently, Wenger works diligently on behalf of the national Go Red for Women campaign to promote heart disease awareness among women. “Disseminating this information about heart disease in women must remain a priority of public and professional education,” she says.

She will help raise funds and serve as adviser for the planned Emory Crawford Long Women’s Cardiovascular Research Center.

And she also mentors women and men at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
In addition, Wenger continues to replace long-held assumptions about cardiovascular disease and care of the elderly.

“We need accurate, fact-based data about this population,” says Wenger, a founder of the Society for Geriatric Cardiology and editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Geriatric Cardiology. “Because of our Medicare orientation, ‘elderly’ has been defined as 65 and older. Where we really lack information is for octogenarians, the fastest-growing sub-population. They are poorly represented in clinical trials.”

During the past year, Wenger joined forces with Emory medical faculty, residents and students to help rescue Grady from the financial black hole that threatened its existence. “Emory medical students and residents deserve the credit for the success of this effort,” she says.

What’s next for Wenger? “My plans, at least for the short term, are to complete a number of research studies and manuscripts and continue teaching, which I cherish.”

To read the full version of this article, please see the current issue of Emory Medicine.