Weill Cornell Medical College student Pauline Flaum-Dunoyer is a natural storyteller and historian.
Since she was 10 years old, she has considered what it means to preserve history in a respectful way. She recalls visiting her great-uncle, a historian with expertise in the West African countries of Mali and Togo, and looking with fascination at the wooden masks on his wall. She understood then the trust that was placed in him to care for the culturally significant relics.
As a college student, her curiosity about the past and how it shapes the present led her to study religion and “examine patterns in religious doctrine that have influenced culture and society,” she said.
With a passion for understanding who and what preceded us, Flaum-Dunoyer attended a history of medicine lecture in 2019 as a first-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medicine and immediately realized that it seemed incomplete. She wondered: What about the work of women and people of color?
“People of color have contributed to medicine in this country, sometimes to the detriment of their own community,” said Flaum-Dunoyer, now a graduating fourth-year student.
So in November 2019, she embarked on a project to ensure that the women of Weill Cornell Medicine are remembered and recognized for their achievements. Over the past four years, she has interviewed more than a dozen women physicians of color, recorded their professional and personal experiences, and donated the recordings and transcripts to the Medical Center Archives of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine, where their legacies will be preserved for future generations.
“I grew up in a world where women aren’t conditioned to believe that anyone in the future will be interested in their stories,” Flaum-Dunoyer said. “The idea that a woman of color should start documenting her contributions, her legacy – I just don’t think we have that instinct, and we are discouraged.”
From one to many stories
Not long after the history of medicine lecture, Flaum-Dunoyer met Nicole Milano, head of the Medical Center Archives. While Flaum-Dunoyer was reflecting on the gaps in history, Milano, then new to her role, was combing through the archives and “determined to expand the voices that were documented in our collections,” she said.
Together they decided that Flaum-Dunoyer would interview Dr. Carol Storey-Johnson, M.D. ’77, a distinguished physician, educator and administrator who in 2019 retired after 45 years at Weill Cornell Medicine. The interview approach: an oral history, which is its own art form, Milano said.
Unlike a traditional interview that involves a back and forth of questions and answers, an oral history is an opportunity for someone to share their story at their own pace and in their own way, documenting their narrative for posterity.
Storey-Johnson recalled what it was like to attend Yale University in the first class of women, in 1969. She talked about her experiences as a Cornell University Medical College student and the constant feeling of “otherness” as a Black woman physician.
“I’m thrilled to be doing this because I want to try to inspire young people – in particular, young women and young people of color – who might be thinking of a career in medicine,” Storey-Johnson, now a professor emerita of medicine, told Flaum-Dunoyer.
It wasn’t long after that interview the COVID-19 pandemic struck, followed by the racial reckoning surrounding the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Elijah McClain. Sitting at home, Flaum-Dunoyer wanted to be doing more.
So she made plans to keep chronicling the lives of women.
Struck by women’s bravery, humor
She went on to interview a dozen more Weill Cornell Medicine women physicians of color, including Dr. Laura Riley, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Dr. Kemi Babagbemi, associate professor of clinical radiology.
Struck by the women’s bravery, humor, activism and resiliency throughout their stories, Flaum-Dunoyer walked away with important lessons from each interview.
For example, from Dr. Vivian Bea, section chief of breast surgical oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and an assistant professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine, she learned what it takes to process grief as a physician. She also drew inspiration from Dr. Susana Morales, director of the Weill Cornell Medicine Diversity Center of Excellence and an associate professor of clinical medicine, and her poignant stories about training during the AIDS crisis.
“I feel connected to these women forever,” Flaum-Dunoyer said.
Dr. Geraldine McGinty, the project’s faculty supervisor, said it’s important to preserve history on both an institutional and individual level.
“So often we’re just busy putting one foot in front of the other trying to do a good job. I think most of us do not spend a lot of time stepping back and reflecting on what we’ve contributed,” said McGinty, the E. Darracott Vaughn, Jr., M.D. Senior Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs and a professor of clinical radiology.
Now, Flaum-Dunoyer has solidified her own place in Weill Cornell Medicine’s history and hopes her project will inspire future generations.
“I want to encourage women to continue to do incredible work, leaving their mark on an incredibly powerful institution,” she said. “I’ve always felt that I should leave my mark on a place I’ve come to and left.”
Malissa Rodenburg is a freelance writer for Weill Cornell Medicine.