Pioneer Female MD Dies at 85

Priscilla D. Taft ’38, a doctor who lectured at Harvard Medical School despite being turned down for admission into its program as a Radcliffe undergraduate because of her gender, died Nov. 23 at Berkshire Medical Center. She was 85.

Taft overcame obstacles such as a bout with tuberculosis and a car accident to become head of the cytology laboratory of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), a Harvard teaching hospital.

“She was feisty, firm and determined to become a doctor,” said her brother-in-law John E. Taft.

Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1917, Taft came to the United States at age five when her father accepted a research position in Ashville, Tenn. The family later moved to Boston where Taft’s father, Louis Dienes, served as chief bacteriologist at MGH.

Taft began assisting her father at an early age and set her sights on becoming a doctor.

She graduated from Radcliffe in 1938 and applied unsuccessfully for admission into Harvard Medical School, seven years before the school accepted its first class of female medical students.

“Apparently, at that time Harvard took the position that it was very limited as to how many students they could accept,” her brother-in-law said. “They felt that women would eventually get married and raise a family and wouldn’t practice.”

Undeterred, Taft applied to and gained admission to Yale Medical School.

In 1941, while studying in New Haven, she contracted tuberculosis and was treated at Gaylord Sanatorium in Connecticut. Her brother Louis Dienes hypothesized that working long hours around sick patients had weakened Taft’s resistance.

Despite her illness, Taft completed her studies and graduated in 1944. She also met her husband, Edgar Taft, while at Yale.

After graduation she continued her convalescence, interrupted when she was hit by a car in Harvard Square in a severe accident. She spent many months in traction but made a full recovery to fulfill her dream of practicing medicine.

Taft took a position at MGH, the hospital where she had assisted her father as a child. She was trained as a pathologist and eventually became head of its cytology laboratory. She also gave lectures at Harvard Medical School and at many research conferences.

“When she first went to work after graduating from Yale, she only worked part-time,” her brother-in-law said. “Pretty soon, though, she was working full time and only getting a part time salary. After taking her case to the MGH administration, she got a full time salary. She never gave up.”

Taft was a benefactor of many community and music groups, especially the Berkshire Music School. She enjoyed music, travel and the outdoors.

Taft leaves a brother, Louis Dienes of New York City, and a sister, Margaret Dienes of Nevada. A memorial service will be held in the spring.