UAMS Lab Now Carries Name of Pioneering Graduate
July 6, 2012 | The Surgical Pathology Lab in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Medical Center now bears the name of the late Frieda Wilhelm, an early female UAMS medical school graduate and a longtime supporter.
David Gruenewald presents to the UAMS and its Historical Research Center a medical bag, along with two plaques that belonged to his aunt, one of the College of Medicine’s early female graduates.
Frieda Wilhelm’s nephew David Gruenewald and his wife Alice, a retired laboratory scientist, pose with the plaque honoring Dr. Wilhelm’s gift to UAMS and naming the hospital’s surgical pathology lab for her.
David Gruenewald of Little Rock presents a check with a gift in memory of his aunt, Frieda Wilhelm, an early female UAMS medical school graduate, to (from left) Melissa Fontaine, UAMS Medical Center chief operating officer, and Lance Burchett, UAMS vice chancellor for institutional advancement.
(From left) Sue Scott, UAMS clinical laboratory director, Jennifer Hunt, M.D., pathology chair, David Gruenewald of Little Rock and his wife Alice
Wilhelm, who died in 2010 at the age of 101, was one of just four women who graduated medical school at UAMS in 1943. She had previously graduated from the medical technology program and was working in labs at UAMS and the arsenal in Jacksonville when she was encouraged to enter medical school.
She made regular gifts to the College of Medicine through her career and following her 1979 retirement, was one of the first donors for the major hospital expansion that opened in 2009.
“Frieda would be so proud of UAMS and this wonderful facility that has been established,” said her nephew David Gruenewald of Little Rock, who presented several items to UAMS that belonged to his aunt – including her medical bag – during an event to celebrate the naming of the Frieda Wilhelm Surgical Pathology Laboratory.
“She would be thrilled to know her legacy is a part of it.”
Her legacy as a pioneer continued when she went to work in the Veterans Administration medical system. She was cited for distinguished service before retiring as director of outpatient services for the VA in Dallas.
Women physicians were still uncommon even by the 1970s. The article in a Dallas-area newspaper announcing the appointment began: “A woman has been named to one of the top jobs in the Veterans Administration in Dallas.” Among the items Gruenewald presented was a plaque of his aunt’s with that newspaper clip along with a citation from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization for outstanding care and service to veterans.
“As one of very few women department chairs, I know that the women in medicine who came before me paved the road, making my career possible,” said Jennifer Hunt, M.D., the chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Services in the UAMS College of Medicine.
Lance Burchett, UAMS vice chancellor for institutional advancement, said a university’s effectiveness is judged by the achievements of its alumni. “Your aunt is a testament to the great prowess of our alumni,” he said.
The surgical pathology lab is where pathologists and laboratory scientists analyze tissue samples to aid in diagnoses. The lab is part of a major 540,000-square-foot hospital building that replaced most of the patient care services in the original 52-year-old UAMS Medical Center building.
“On behalf of the medical center, thank you to Dr. Wilhelm and her family for the kind of support that made this beautiful hospital facility possible,” said Melissa Fontaine, UAMS Medical Center chief operating officer. “Gifts like hers support our physicians and laboratory staff so that they are able to provide great care to our patients.”
Wilhelm’s time at UAMS preceded even the original UAMS Medical Center building. When she began classes in medical technology, they were still being taught in the Old State House, which the state Legislature assigned to the medical school when the State Capitol was built.
While a medical student and a medical technologist, she was in the City Hospital building where the medical school moved in the 1930s. “I remember going and visiting her there in what is now the UALR law school building with the medical school in a building adjacent to it that is now gone,” Gruenewald said.
He recounted how his mother and her sister, Frieda, had to get jobs to help support the family when Prohibition forced their father to close the saloon he operated in downtown North Little Rock. Wilhelm’s family originally moved to the United States – and eventually North Little Rock – from Switzerland in the 1880s.
Wilhelm entered medical school in 1940, at age 32. Gruenewald brought his aunt’s 1941 yearbook where a photo of the sophomore class officers included Wilhelm as the class secretary. He noted the father of one of his doctors now was standing next to Wilhelm in the photo.
The medical bag included her instruments and even some old medications. Gruenewald said his memory of that bag was from the early 1970s, when returning from a rafting trip to Idaho, he was in serious pain from a kidney stone. Wilhelm met him at the Dallas airport with her medical bag to help him.
Amanda Saar, historical research librarian in the UAMS Library, said she was excited to receive the items and find out about Wilhelm’s successes. She said she tried to keep track of all the early women medical students from the very first in 1898.
“We will treasure these items. The women of UAMS are very special because there were not that many of them back then,” Saar said.