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Pioneer Female Surgeon Still on Cutting Edge : Medicine: At 70 she maintains a thriving practice. She has developed anti-cancer skin products and volunteered her help in Third World.


HAVERSTRAW, N.Y. — In the 1940s, when many people believed women shouldn't become surgeons, Martha MacGuffie still wanted to be one. Her dean at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons told her no one would train a female surgeon, but agreed to write a recommendation for her.

At each of her job interviews, surgeons chuckled after reading the short note, baffling MacGuffie until the fourth interviewer, who had burst out laughing, read it to her.

"To whom it may concern," it read, "this woman is large, powerful and tireless."

MacGuffie got all four jobs. Since then, her admirers say, she has more than lived up to those words.

During her 70 years, she has established a volunteer group to help fight disease and death in Africa, run a research laboratory and traveled the Third World with relief organizations, all the while maintaining a thriving medical practice in which a patient's ability to pay was never an object. Recently, she developed a line of skin care products to help prevent skin cancer.

In her practice of reconstructive and plastic surgery, she cares for the terribly injured and burned, the most difficult cases, working in the northern New York suburbs.

And she has been the ultimate working mother, raising eight children. She also has nine grandchildren.

"There's no one like her," said Robert C. Macauley, founder and chairman of AmeriCares, a New Canaan, Conn.-based nonprofit relief organization with which MacGuffie works periodically. "She is a most unusual woman; dauntless and fearless, an inspiration."

Accomplished, compassionate, humble, dedicated, selfless and unstoppable are other words used to describe MacGuffie, who has also endured a large measure of tragedy: the deaths of two teen-age sons born with a fatal blood disease.

MacGuffie was the middle daughter of a Passaic, N.J., doctor, surgeon and sculptor. Her mother was trained as an opera singer but never practiced her profession.

MacGuffie describes her father as the sort of physician "who just took care of people whether or not they had money." She frequently accompanied him on rounds and watched him during surgery.

Early on she decided on medicine. Her father, she said, acted as if her decision was a normal one for the time. For that reason she never had doubts about her abilities or felt discrimination in the profession.

"Right in the beginning I was an oddity," MacGuffie said. "I think it was easier for me then than it is for women today. I wasn't competition to the male doctors. I was someone doing something out of my sphere."

Animals were her first love. As a child, she spent summers in Maine living in a tent in the woods with at least a couple of dogs.

"I was a terrible child, socially at least," MacGuffie said. "All I cared about was animals."

A small school for girls in New Jersey turned MacGuffie from a wild wood-dweller into a student and cleared the path for her entrance into Cornell University. But she still attended class with two beagle puppies in a knapsack and a crow on her shoulder.

During medical school she married a fellow student and had two daughters before becoming the first female surgeon to graduate from the college. Later, she was as tireless in pursuit of her specialty.

Trying to get her to talk about her career and how it developed is difficult. MacGuffie is reluctant to address her achievements.

But at times, she does allude to how hard it was to balance work and a large family.

With her second husband, also a doctor, MacGuffie had five more children. She also adopted her second husband's child from his first marriage.

"Those years were a blur," MacGuffie said. "There doesn't seem anything that was as much work as those kids."

How was it growing up the child of a whirlwind who was up at 5 a.m., worked all day and was in bed reading at 1 a.m.? While her daughters have divergent views, it is clear that sometimes MacGuffie's work was hard for them too.

"What was normal for us was watching her in action," said Dr. Jane Hudson, an oncologist. "She tried not to separate her work from her children. The tragedies of others became our dinner conversation."

MacGuffie's adopted daughter, Dr. Harriet Hudson, is more critical. As the oldest, much of the burden of raising the younger children fell to her, she said.

"She was never home," Harriet Hudson said. "To put her in the role of mother is stretching it. She didn't have time for us. She was very driven to do her work."

The standing joke in the family, she said, was that when her mother wasn't home, the children would always say she was out saving lives.

But another daughter, Chris Abrams, speaks of MacGuffie's sense of fun. When she could, she would show up at soccer games with a megaphone and pompons or surprise her children by appearing on a firetruck in a local parade.

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