Dr. Helen M. Ranney dies at 89; pioneering female physician explored sickle cell genetics


Dr. Helen M. Ranney, a pioneering female physician who was among the first to explore the genetics of sickle cell disease and scored a number of firsts for women in her profession, including being the first to head a department of medicine at a U.S. medical school, has died. She was 89, a week short of her 90th birthday.

Ranney died at her La Jolla home April 5, UC San Diego announced. A cause of death was not given.

“Helen Ranney was an outstanding physician-scientist, a leader in medicine, a respected mentor and an influential figure in our history,” said Dr. David Brenner, vice chancellor for health sciences at UC San Diego, where she ended her career. “More than any other person, UC San Diego School of Medicine today reflects her vision and leadership.”


Ranney studied sickle cell disease in the early 1950s, when researchers knew virtually nothing about genetics and DNA. Physicians knew the disease was inherited, but they had no way to tell if specific parents were likely to transmit the disease to their children or if a newborn would develop it.

Sickle cell is marked by an unusual form of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying part of the red blood cell, called hemoglobin S or HbS. Under conditions of stress, HbS distorts red blood cells into a sickle shape, hindering their ability to carry oxygen and causing them to clog blood vessels. The disorder, which manifests itself mostly in black people, can cause stroke, severe pain, organ damage and death.

HbS could be separated from the normal form of hemoglobin, called HbA, by a tedious and cumbersome procedure that was useful for research but not for diagnosing patients. Ranney adapted a laboratory procedure called gel electrophoresis to separate the two variants quickly and easily.

Her process could be used to identify whether an adult was a carrier of the sickle cell gene because adult carriers’ blood has roughly equal amounts of HbS and HbA. The procedure could also be used to diagnose the disease in newborns. Sickle cell symptoms typically do not appear in infants younger than about 6 months because newborns produce a different form of hemoglobin, called fetal hemoglobin, that suppresses the activity of HbS. Ranney’s process could identify HbS in their blood and allow parents to appropriately care for them.

She used a similar approach to examine other blood disorders, such as a form of thalassemia that had previously been identified only in Asians. After identifying the disorder in a young African American woman, Ranney visited the woman’s relatives in isolated black communities in North Carolina — places that Ranney’s colleagues thought were too dangerous for a white woman to visit alone.

She was greeted warmly, however, and was able to trace the disease through three generations of the family. Ranney’s report marked the first time the disorder had been recognized in blacks.


Today, of course, blood disorders are much more easily monitored genetically.

Helen Margaret Ranney was born April 12, 1920, in Summer Hill, N.Y., where she was raised on a dairy farm and educated initially in a one-room schoolhouse. She enrolled at Barnard College planning to study law, but later wrote that “economists, sociologists and the like study things you can’t fix, even if you could find out what was wrong. Medicine attempts to fix what it studies.”

After graduating in 1941, she applied to the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons but was rejected because she was a woman. She took a job as a technician at Babies Hospital in New York, where she gained laboratory skills that served her during her subsequent research.

World War II drew many men into military service and, in 1943, Ranney was finally accepted into Columbia’s medical school. She graduated in 1947, one of five women in a class of 120. After nearly two decades at Columbia, she joined Yeshiva University’s new Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In 1973she joined UC San Diego, becoming the second head of its department of medicine and the first woman to hold such a position.

Ranney was also the first female president of the Assn. of American Physicians, said Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, current chairman of UC San Diego’s department of medicine. And she was the first woman honored as a distinguished physician of what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said.

Ranney never married and has no immediate survivors.