Jennifer C. Romano, MD, MS
4 min read
Key Points
  • March is Women's History Month, an important time to acknowledge and honor the accomplishments of trailblazing women.
  • Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig and Dr. Nina Starr Braunwald are two women who led the way for change in the cardiothoracic surgery specialty.
  • Read about the contributions they made in a field that historically was inaccessible to women.

Cardiothoracic surgery has historically been dominated by men. Yet the narrative of women in the specialty is one of groundbreaking achievements, perseverance, and resilience. 

The roots of women’s involvement in CT surgery can be traced back to Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig, known as the founder of pediatric cardiology for her innovative work on “blue babies,” children with tetralogy of Fallot, a type of heart defect that limits the flow of blood to the lungs. In 1944, Dr. Taussig, surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock, and surgical technician Dr. Vivien Thomas developed an operation to palliate these babies by providing an additional source of blood flow to the lungs. Since then, their operation has prolonged thousands of lives and is considered a key step in the development of the field of open-heart surgery. 

dr. romano
STS President Jennifer C. Romano, MD, MS

Dr. Nina Starr Braunwald is the woman who shattered the CT surgery glass ceiling. 

Dr. Braunwald received her baccalaureate and medical degrees from New York University and was one of the first women to train in general surgery at New York's Bellevue Hospital. During her residency, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Charles Hufnagel, a renowned cardiac surgeon at Georgetown University, which sparked her interest in the emerging specialty. 

Under Dr. Hufnagel’s mentorship, Dr. Braunwald was at the center of research in the field of cardiac valve prostheses and surgical replacement. And in 1960, she made history by leading the first successful artificial human mitral valve replacement using a design she created. 

In 1963, Dr. Braunwald became the first woman to be certified by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery, further cementing her status as a trailblazer in CT surgery. Her expertise and dedication earned her widespread acclaim, challenging traditional gender dynamics and paving the way for future generations of female CT surgeons. 

Despite her achievements, women surgeons have continued to face barriers and challenges in CT surgery. Mentorship programs and professional development opportunities have emerged to empower women and provide them with the tools and resources needed to succeed in the specialty. The Thoracic Surgery Foundation, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons’ charitable arm, has a long history of offering scholarships, awards, and research opportunities focused on equity, including the Nina Starr Braunwald Research Fellowship Award, which supports female residents working in cardiac surgical clinics or laboratory research programs.

At this year's Annual Meeting, STS announced the creation of the Nina Starr Braunwald Center, a virtual destination offering innovative programs, advocacy efforts, education, and scholarships aimed at issues of special interest to women CT surgeons. The Center further exemplifies Dr. Braunwald’s contributions not only as a surgeon, but as a woman who showed that balancing the challenges of work and family life was possible. 

The Extraordinary Women in Cardiothoracic Surgery Award, a collaboration between STS and Women in Thoracic Surgery, also celebrates excellence in clinical practice by female CT surgeons. The award recognizes integrity, leadership, creativity, and expertise in carrying out day-to-day duties that support the specialty.

As we reflect on the history of women in CT surgery during Women’s History Month, let’s celebrate the achievements of pioneers like Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig and Dr. Nina Starr Braunwald, as well as all female cardiothoracic surgeons who have touched the lives of so many while also promoting gender equality and diversity within the field. Through their courage, determination, and remarkable contributions, these trailblazing women have transformed the specialty and patient care. 

About the Author: Jennifer C. Romano, MD, MS, is a congenital heart surgeon at the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Herbert Sloan Collegiate Professor of Cardiac Surgery at the University of Michigan. This year, Dr. Romano was elected president of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons, making her the first woman to hold that office in the organization’s 60-year history.