Dr. Ruth Finkelstein, 93, OB-GYN, Planned Parenthood clinician

April 09, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Dr. Ruth Finkelstein, a retired Baltimore obstetrician and gynecologist whose pioneering efforts led to better health care and family planning for women, died Sunday of a heart attack at her Cheswolde home in Northwest Baltimore. She was 93.

Born in Corona, N.Y., and raised in New York City, Dr. Finkelstein, who retained her maiden name, was a graduate of the Jacobi-Calhoun School in Manhattan. She earned her bachelor's degree from the Johns Hopkins University in 1930, and did additional study at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.

In 1930, she was one of 16 students -- and the first female undergraduate from the Johns Hopkins University -- to be admitted to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she earned her medical degree in obstetrics and gynecology in 1935.

After completing her internship at Sinai Hospital, then on East Monument Street, Dr. Finkelstein was shocked to find that she would be barred from completing a residency at Sinai in gynecologic surgery.

"They told me there was no place for me to live in the hospital as a resident," she told The Sun in a 1982 interview. "The chairman of the department of obstetrics allowed me to spend two years with him as an apprentice, but the chief of surgery would not permit me to learn gynecologic surgery."

She became interested in family planning and women's health issues as a young medical student, and worked in the Bureau for Contraceptive Advice at 1028 N. Broadway -- a forerunner of Planned Parenthood.

In a 1970 profile in The Evening Sun, Dr. Finkelstein recalled how the bureau's director, Dr. Bessie L. Moses, rented the top floors of the building to medical students. "I lived there and saw the patients come and go and saw the great need, and before long I was caught up in the movement," she said.

"In those days you needed a letter from a doctor to get contraceptives and even then they were dispensed only for health reasons. We've come a long way since then," she said in the interview.

From 1938 until retiring in 1990, she maintained a practice in the Medical Arts Building, and it was only after she began having a family of her own with her husband, Harry Greenberg, a manufacturers' representative, that she gave up obstetrical services.

She also headed Sinai Hospital's Birth Control Clinic from 1942 to 1979, and its Adolescent Clinic, which dealt with prevention of teen pregnancy, from 1966 to 1969.

She served as a clinician for Planned Parenthood from 1938 to 1964, and held other roles with the organization through the 1980s.

In 1964, she was responsible for initiating a family planning program through the Baltimore City Health Department, which was accomplished without opposition.

"This was a significant contribution," said Dr. Frances H. Trimble, a retired gynecologist and former Planned Parenthood medical director.

"She blazed trails and believed deeply in this work," said Laurie Zabin, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. "She got involved in family planning at a time when it took lots of courage.

"People today tend to forget how much courage it took to be a leader in this field years ago. And she was. We made huge strides between the 1930s and 1970s, and for her, this was a crusade as well as a service."

Dr. Marc Lowen, a protege who took over her practice, recalled that when Dr. Finkelstein entered the profession, the OB-GYN specialty was dominated by male physicians.

"She was a wonderful role model and paved the way for females to be involved in training in obstetrics and gynecology. The truth of the matter is that she combined parenting and being a wife with a demanding career," he said.

"She began to emancipate women long before it was fashionable. By teaching women that they were, in fact, in control of their own reproductive careers, she had a powerful impact on their lives," said a citation presented by Sinai Hospital in 1986 in recognition of her life's work.

Dr. Finkelstein was a member of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

Her husband of 21 years died in 1963.

Services are private.

She is survived by a son, David Greenberg, and a daughter, Ruth Emily Greenberg, both of Baltimore; a stepdaughter, Vida Lehman of Berkeley, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

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