This profile is part of the story Women Unlimited: Closing the Gender Gap in Medicine and Science.
Vivian Lewis’s class in medical school, at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, was considered quite progressive in the 1970s—about one-third of the students were women.
“I was part of a kind of sea change,” she says. “The senior class looked very different.”
Although the residency programs she considered had hardly any women faculty, about half her peers in the residency she chose, in obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine of City University, were women.
“Honestly, we were the stronger ones,” she says. “We were overachievers. We felt the expectations were greater for us.”
By the time Lewis came to the University of Rochester Medical Center in 1991 as an associate professor and to lead the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology, she was enthusiastically helping to advance a field continuously expanding in scope and impact.
“Reproductive endocrinology barely existed when I was coming along, so part of what attracted me was that it seemed like an open canvas, with so much to be discovered,” she says.
Lewis has been chair of the advisory committee on reproductive health drugs for the Food and Drug Administration since 2014. Aside from reproductive endocrinology, her areas of expertise include infertility, menopause, in vitro fertilization, and hormone replacement therapy.
Being promoted from associate professor to full professor “was an interesting step for me and a turning point,” Lewis says, because she was the only underrepresented minority in that role. “There had been one before me, but that person had moved on, and now it was my turn.”
She didn’t understand why. There were few female full professors as it was, though she knew many women who deserved to be moving up the ranks. And she knew other ethnic minorities who’d left their jobs in frustration because they felt they were hitting the glass ceiling.
“I thought, ‘I deserve this promotion, and yet I shouldn’t be so unique. This is ridiculous,’” she says.
From that promotion in early 2000 until July 2019, Lewis was the only female African American full professor throughout the entire university.
Lewis, who retired in September but continues to work for the university part time, is proud of the way science and medicine around women’s health and reproduction have expanded choices available to female practitioners and patients—in large part due to the women’s movement.
“You can’t separate the two, and that’s for the better of health care,” she says. “Not to say women are solely responsible. But we’ve made our mark.”