Audrey Shields Penn was the first African-American woman to serve as acting director of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) institute. Heading a governmental biomedical science agency is no easy task – you’re responsible for overseeing groundbreaking research, the training of doctors and scientists, and working with patients, the public, and policymakers. And if you’re an African American woman, you need to add overcoming racial and gender discrimination to that list of job requirements. Yet, somehow, as director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Audrey Shields Penn, was able to do it all with grace.
Penn was born in New York in 1934 and received a degree in chemistry from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. She loved chemistry and the use of basic research to help people with diseases, but knew she wanted a career that would allow her more contact with those people she was helping, so she decided to go into medicine. She received a medical degree from Columbia University, where her entering class was only 10% female and she was one of only a couple of minority students. Fascinated by the brain and the mysteries it holds, she pursued specialty training in neurology at Columbia, where she became a professor.
In addition to being an active physician, she stayed close to her chemistry roots, studying the biochemical basis of myasthenia gravis as a NINDS special fellow. She went on to become a world-renowned expert in this autoimmune neuromuscular disorder that causes muscle weakness.
In 1995, she was named Deputy Director of NINDS, and she served as Acting Director from December 1997 to July 1998 and January 2001 to September 2003. After a decade as deputy director, she “retired” from the post to serve as special advisor to the Director, working with NIND’s Office of Minority Health and Research. She helped develop a Specialized Neuroscience Research Program (SNRP) to advance opportunities for minorities in neuroscience.