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UVA Health Women’s History: Pioneers Throughout the Decades

pioneer women at UVA Health

We're celebrating Women's History Month, and all the women who work hard caring for patients at UVA Health.

Many women at UVA Health were pioneers in the medical field. They were breaking through barriers and leading the way for future generations of women. Here are some of their stories.

Helen Grayson, RN

Originally from Culpeper, Grayson went to George Washington Carver High School before moving to Rochester, New York, to obtain her nursing degree. Grayson always knew she wanted to become a nurse. She moved to Virginia to start working at Culpeper Regional Hospital (now known as Culpeper Medical Center) in 1960. Grayson was the first Black female nurse at the hospital and worked there for 42 years. She started as an LPN, but after many years of hard work, she qualified as an RN to finish out her years in Culpeper.

She enjoyed helping people and making sure her patients were cared for like family. Even within the community, neighbors or friends would call Helen to ask for medical advice. To this day, Helen will quickly say, "You know I'm a nurse!" She created a bridge for other young nurses that want to help their community and others in the medical field.

Vivian Pinn, MD

Vivian Pinn, MD, was the only Black and only woman in her class to graduate from UVA School of Medicine in 1967. She knew from an early age she wanted to be a doctor, even though Black female doctors were unheard of at the time. After years of being overlooked, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Pinn made it her mission to become the kind of physician who pays attention to their patients.

She started with plans to become a pediatrician, but after an internship switched gears to research. Pinn became director of the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health. One of her goals was to increase leadership roles in research and academic institutions for women.

She received numerous awards. UVA honored her by naming one of our research and education buildings, Pinn Hall, and its four advisory medical student colleges, Pinn College.

Mavis Claytor, RN

Mavis Claytor, from Roanoke, was the first Black woman to earn a bachelor's degree at UVA School of Nursing in 1970. She knew UVA was where she wanted to go for her degree, even though moving there was risky. After staying in hotels, she eventually asked for help from the dean to secure a room in the dorms.

"I was so focused on getting my education that I did not pay attention to the fact that I was the only Black student," says Claytor.

Mavis was the first Black woman to earn a bachelor's degree from the UVA School of Nursing. But we also must honor the contributions of those during the nurse shortage post-World War II. The School of Nursing and UVA Hospital operated a licensed practical nursing program with the then all-Black Jackson P. Burley High School between 1959 and 1968. Dozens of LPNs earned their degrees during this time and were early pioneers in integrating the nursing profession.

Her mentor, an instructor at UVA, encouraged Claytor to pursue her master's degree in nursing. More doors were opening for females at this time, and she felt like this was the best next step for her.

"At UVA," she says, "we didn't think much about race or gender. I think we were just focused on the educational climate at UVA. We always had football games and activities that brought people together. Times were beginning to change rapidly."

Claytor has since retired as the chief of geriatric nursing at the Veterans Affairs Center in Salem after a long career of 30 years.

Diane Snustad, MD

Diane Snustad, MD, made her way to Charlottesville from Fargo, North Dakota, bringing her knowledge of internal medicine. Shortly after arriving at UVA, she was the first woman in the department of internal medicine to take maternity leave.

Snustad retired as the medical director for the Colonnades Medical Associates and the Colonnades Skilled Nursing Center since their openings in 1991. She also volunteered at the Charlottesville Free Clinic and the Remote Area Medical Clinic in Wise, Virginia, for a number of years.

The Dr. Diane Snustad Award honors female faculty or staff within the UVA Department of Medicine. These women exemplify the qualities of scholarships, mentorship, empathy, and a trailblazing spirit.

Karen Rheuban, MD

Karen Rheuban, MD, is co-founder and director of the UVA Center for Telehealth, which was renamed the Karen S. Rheuban Center for Telehealth in 2016 to recognize Rheuban's significant contributions to the field of telemedicine. She has played a leading role in providing the best care for rural communities

On New Year's Day in 2000, she helped save a 2-day old infant when the newborn's echocardiogram was sent to her to UVA from Winchester Medical Center, 130 miles away. She spotted a rare, life-threatening defect, and her expertise was vital for diagnosis.

Rheuban continues to care for UVA Children's pediatric cardiology patients. She also serves as senior associate dean for Continuing Medical Education. Her team provides accredited continuing health professional education across a broad range of provider disciplines using both traditional and cutting-edge innovative technologies.

Peggy McNaull, MD

Peggy McNaull, MD, is the John Rowlingson Professor and chair of the UVA Department of Anesthesiology. She is the first woman to chair the department since it was established in 1955. She oversees 65 faculty and 70 residents and fellows in their mission to lead in clinical care, medical education, research, and community service. 

McNaull is a member of the pediatric cardiac anesthesia team and finds great joy in providing anesthesia for children with complex congenital heart disease. 

Nancy McDaniel, MD

Nancy McDaniel, MD, served as the first medical director for 7 Acute, the medical surgical unit where most children are admitted to the hospital. This floor also has two intensive care units, including the NICU and PICU.

McDaniel was the initial medical director for UVA Children's and was active in establishing our children's hospital. She was an integral part of selecting the architect and design firms for the Battle Building. She retired in 2018 but taught and worked in some clinics in 2019. Now she still obtains her title as an emerita.

She grew up in Virginia and attended the University of Virginia for both undergraduate and medical school. Starting at UVA School of Nursing, she graduated in 1977 and was one of four nurses to graduate from the School of Medicine in 1983.

She joined the UVA faculty in 1989. During her time here, she treated infants to adolescents with known heart conditions as well as seeing children referred from general practice. This year, we'll be launching the first Annual Nancy McDaniel Lectureship on Women in Leadership. Guest speaker former Dean Nancy Dunlap, MD, PhD, MBA, will be in attendance.

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