Nancy Warner. (Photography by Tony Chiapetta)

Out in front

Pioneering pathologist Nancy Warner, SB’44, MD’49, is helping other women scholars follow in her path.

In 1972 Nancy Warner, SB’44, MD’49, was named chair of pathology at the University of Southern California—a promotion that made history. Warner was not only the first woman chair at the Keck School of Medicine but also the first woman in the United States to chair a pathology department at a coeducational institution.

Warner has been quietly overcoming professional barriers since the 1940s, when as a University of Chicago undergraduate, she convinced a reluctant secretary to hand her an application form for the medical school. She remained at the University for her residency in pathology—the study of bodily tissues and fluids to diagnose disease—and later served as its chief surgical pathologist. In 1965 Warner headed for the West Coast and ultimately settled at USC, where she retired as the Hastings Professor of Pathology in 1993.

An expert in endocrine pathology, especially the diagnosis of thyroid disease, she authored the textbook Basic Endocrine Pathology (Year Book Medical Publishers, 1971), among many other scholarly publications. Warner coined the now commonly used term “Orphan Annie–eye nuclei” to describe a distinctive trait of certain thyroid cancer cells; the tumors’ empty nuclei reminded her of Orphan Annie’s blank eyes in the popular comic strip.

Warner’s skill in the classroom earned her four USC teaching awards and the American Society of Clinical Pathologists’ Distinguished Pathology Educator Award in 1994. “I think enthusiasm in a teacher gets transmitted to the students,” she told the USC Living History Project in 2002. “They know who cares and who doesn’t.”

Early in her own medical training, Warner was influenced and inspired by two women pathologists at the University: Edith Potter, who created the subspecialty of perinatal pathology and worked to discover the cause of infant deaths, and surgical pathologist Eleanor Humphreys, MD’31. (Humphreys was “one of the best teachers I ever saw and so clever as a pathologist. … Every student got to know her and loved her.”) Throughout her career, Warner made a point of helping other women, just as Humphreys and Potter helped her.

In addition to recruiting women to the USC faculty, she served on the board of the Medical Faculty Women’s Association at USC, which provides research grants to women researchers. Warner and her wife and partner of more than six decades, Christine Reynolds, longtime supporters of many areas of the University, made a gift last year to help women scholars flourish across the disciplines.

Their bequest creates a dissertation completion fellowship in gender and sexuality studies, professional development opportunities for women in the biological sciences, and a research scholar fund for tenured women faculty in the humanities. When one woman succeeds, Warner believes, it makes room for others to succeed.

Her comments below have been condensed and edited.

Applying to medical school

The persons who taught the immunology courses that I needed to complete my degree were gone to World War II, so I had to substitute other things to get enough credits.

I took chemistry courses and some other things, and after I put all that stuff together, it was about the same as what a premedical student would have to take. Two of my professors said, “You should apply to medical school.” I said, “What’s the point? They don’t let women in.” They said, “You should do it anyway.”

You had to go and get the application form from the woman in the office of the dean of the medical school. I asked her, and she said, “You won’t get in, because they already admitted five women and that’s more than they’ve ever had before.” But I persuaded her that she needed to give me a form and she finally did.

The two professors who thought I should apply to medical school—I’m indebted to them because I never would have thought of it otherwise.

One of seven

There were seven women in my class. They put four students on one cadaver, and you were responsible for dissecting it and taking care of it. The three people who were with me were very nice guys, they really were, and we got along fine. So I really didn’t have any trouble with that. And the other courses, the classroom stuff, it didn’t matter whether you were a man or a woman. It came to me pretty easily.

Memorable classmate

Janet Rowley [LAB’42, PhB’45, SB’46, MD’48, the late Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine] was a very good student. She liked to sit in the back and knit, which irritated some of the guys. I kept up with her work after medical school, and over the years we became closer friends. She came here to the house a couple of times.

Another friend of mine and I nominated her for an honorary degree at the University of Southern California. She was selected and she came out here with her husband, Don [SB’45, SM’50, MD’50], and we had a nice little party afterward.

Choosing a specialty

I would have gone into surgery, but I can’t get along without sleep. Surgeons have to be able to go for 30 or 35 hours straight with no sleep, and I just can’t do that, so I didn’t go for it. I figured out pathology was the thing for me, because it’s got more structured hours. I enjoyed anatomy very much, and abnormal anatomy—which pathology is—was of interest to me also.

On meeting her wife, Christine Reynolds

We grew up in the same town, in Dixon, Illinois. It was a town of about 5,000 in those days. A river runs right through the town, and I lived on the north side and Chris lived on the south side. When she was nine she moved, and she came to the same school where I was. That’s how we met. After high school, I think we saw each other a couple of times on holidays or vacations.

In 1950 my mother [Lucile Mertz, PhB 1911] was going to do some business in San Francisco and she said to me, “You’ve never been to California, why don’t you come with me? When we go through Los Angeles, we’ll call Chris up and have dinner.” We traveled on what they called the California Zephyr, a beautiful train. I was just thrilled with the scenery and the animals and the birds and everything.

We got to Los Angeles, and I called up Chris and she said, “Yes, we’ll have dinner.” Chris planned that we would go to the San Fernando Valley and have dinner there. We became interested in each other. I went over to where she was living and spent the evening there. It became late, and we had been drinking quite a bit. I called my mother and said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it home tonight” and she said, “That’s fine.”

Living in secrecy

You didn’t dare come out in those days. I don’t know whether my family knew. I’ve thought a lot about it. I never told my mother, and Chris never told her mother. That’s the way it was then.

To be in the closet, there was no choice. You had to be, that was all. You could lose your job. You could lose everything. You would try to figure out ways to meet with other people you suspected might be gay and talk to them and get to know them, and eventually come out to them. We did that with a couple people.

West Coast perks

I liked the fact that you could wear pants. That was very nice. Women did not wear pants in those days, but they did in California.

Her biggest accomplishment

I think I’m most proud of having been the chairman of the department of pathology at USC. That wouldn’t have happened without the dean of the medical school. His wife and his mother were physicians, and I think he had quite a bit of pressure on him to appoint a woman chairman. There had never been such a thing.

I accepted the position as chairman of pathology, and I enjoyed it very much. There was one guy who was jealous of me, but everybody else was very friendly and cooperative. Many of them were people with international reputations, and I wondered how they’d take it, but they all thought it was great.

Front of the classroom

I love teaching, and I got some nice teaching awards from students over the years. I just enjoy telling people what things are about. Especially pathology. I loved anatomy in medical school, and pathology is just anatomy gone wrong. It’s something I do naturally—and I do it well if I may say so.

Leaning in

Women will recruit other women. I recruited plenty of women to associate professor positions. When I started at the University of Southern California there were hardly any, and as the time went on there have been many more, but there are still not as many as there ought to be, I think. A woman is going to find you other women who are qualified.

Updated 09.28.20 to reflect the date of retirement to 1993.