• September 6, 2017

    A Legacy Revived

The re-establishment of the Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas Orthopedic Residency in 2015 represented the continuation of a strong legacy of orthopedic education. In 2017, as the first female resident to enter the program, PGY1 Shawna Watson, MD, represents the next chapter of another Baylor Dallas legacy: women in orthopedics.

“The first female orthopedic surgeon in the country was trained here and spent nearly her whole career at Baylor,” explains Alan Jones, MD, chief of Orthopedics and program director of the Orthopedic Residency for Baylor Dallas.

In the mid-1920s, Ruth Jackson was one of four female medical students out of more than 100 total students at Baylor University College of Medicine, which was located on the Baylor Dallas campus at the time. During orientation, she and her female peers were bluntly told they would need to score 10 points better than the men to be considered equal standing. They also would not be allowed to examine male patients.

Despite the obstacles, she graduated eighth in the class of 1928. She initially wanted to become a general surgeon, but internships in general surgery for women did not exist, so she trained in orthopedic surgery at the University of Iowa before returning to Dallas to become a resident physician in orthopedics at Scottish Rite Hospital.

“I’ve been able to talk to a few people here who knew her, and it’s been really interesting to hear their personal accounts of her,” says Dr. Watson. “She’s very much the figurehead for women in orthopedic surgery.”

With the establishment of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery (AAOS) in 1933, all male orthopedic surgeons were automatically granted membership – yet another obstacle for Dr. Jackson to overcome. And she did. She was the first woman to pass the board exam and first to become a member of AAOS.

Dr. Jackson officially joined the Baylor University Hospital medical staff in 1939. Six years later, she established a private practice and remained a prominent surgeon at Baylor Dallas until her retirement in 1989 (she stopped operating in 1974). In 1983, a rare tribute was paid to her with the establishment of a support and networking group for female orthopedic surgeons bearing her name: the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society.

“Prior to coming to Baylor, I knew of Ruth Jackson and the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society, which looks to carry on her legacy by encouraging present-day females to pursue surgical fields. However, I wasn’t aware of her connections to Dallas or Baylor Dallas until rotating here as a medical student,” says Dr. Watson.

Building a Training Program for the Future

While Dr. Watson – and all the residents – very much respect Dr. Jackson and her achievements both as a trailblazer and an outstanding surgeon, it is not why Dr. Watson chose the Baylor Dallas Orthopedic Residency Program.

“I was drawn to Baylor Dallas by its strong reputation and alluring location in the heart of Dallas,” explains Dr. Watson. “But it was the people that made me want to match here. During my visiting rotation, everyone was so welcoming and respectful of each other, and seemed truly happy to be here.”

Although Baylor Dallas graduated its first orthopedic resident in 1921, for much of the 20th century, Baylor Dallas shared an orthopedic residency program with Parkland and UT Southwestern. However, rotations at Baylor Dallas began to dwindle towards the end of the century and Baylor Dallas shifted its training focus to orthopedic fellowship programs.

However, there was a huge demand for a new orthopedic residency training program at high volume center such as Baylor Dallas.

“We had nearly 700 applicants for three spots,” says Dr. Jones about the first year it restarted.

While it is a new residency, the program has many strengths, including a faculty that are all private practice orthopedic surgeons with a passion for teaching, strong institutional support, a high volume of diverse orthopedic cases, and the ability – and flexibility – to be innovative.

“Most orthopedic residency programs – particularly in academic institutions – are service-oriented, which means residents are relied on heavily to provide call and coverage,” explains Dr. Jones. “That means making changes can be problematic. In our program, we were able to take the approach ‘what will provide residents the best training experience’ and build the program accordingly.”    

That means the program includes collaborations with Cook Children’s in Fort Worth for pediatric orthopedics, as well as time at The Star in Frisco – home of the Dallas Cowboys – for sports medicine. It also means seeking constant feedback on how to make the program better. “This is a hospital with 100 years of orthopedic history,” says Dr. Jones, “and while this is just the latest chapter, it is an exciting one.”