Jessie L. Ternberg (1924 - 2016)

Jessie L. Ternberg

Jessie L. Ternberg received her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Grinnell College in Iowa in 1946 and her doctorate in Biochemistry from the University of Texas in 1950. She entered the Washington University School of Medicine in 1949, earning her medical degree in 1953. She interned at Boston City Hospital in 1953 and 1954, and then returned to St. Louis to begin her residency at Barnes Hospital.

Jessie L. Ternberg paved the way for many women at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes Hospital. Ternberg was the first woman surgical resident at Barnes Hospital in 1954. In 1958 she was the first woman chief resident and first woman surgeon on the WU medical school staff. In 1973 Ternberg was the first woman to be elected head of the University’s School of Medicine faculty council. Ternberg was promoted to professor of Surgery in 1971. She was instrumental in establishing the Division of Pediatric Surgery and was named its chief in 1972. Ternberg also was the first woman to serve as president of the St. Louis Surgical Society.

Jessie Ternberg performing surgery
Jessie L. Ternberg (right), performing surgery

For 13 years Ternberg was the only full-time general surgeon on staff at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. From 1972 to 1990 she was pediatric surgeon-in-chief and director of the Division of Pediatric Surgery. She routinely performed more than 500 operations a year and was known for her expertise in the area of correcting congenital gastrointestinal deficiencies in children.

Her first research was published in 1949. Since then Ternberg has authored or co-authored scores of scientific publications, abstracts, book chapters, and a widely-used medical reference book, A Handbook for Pediatric Surgery.

Many honors were bestowed upon Jessie Ternberg over the years. She received an honorary doctor of science from her alma mater Grinnell College in 1972, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s International Women’s Year Award for Health (Region 7) in 1975, and the American Schools and Colleges Association’s Horatio Alger Award in 1977. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat named Ternberg one of its Women of Achievement for 1975. In 1991 Ternberg was honored with the Washington University Alumni/Faculty Award, and in 1998 former students and colleagues established the Jessie L. Ternberg Award, to be given annually to a female medical graduate who best exemplifies Jessie Ternberg’s indomitable spirit of determination, perseverance and dedication to her patients. In February 2000, Ternberg was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.