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Remembering Dr. Lila Wallis, “Godmother of Women’s Health”

Dr. Lila Wallis

With sadness, we share the news that Dr. Lila Wallis, AMWA Past President (1988-1989), passed away on January 3, 2022 at the age of 100. You may read the full obituary here.

I first came to know Dr. Lila Wallis on March 14, 2000 when a letter arrived in my office in response in response to a query I had put out for writings by women in medicine.

Dear Dr. Chin,

I received your letter on December 8th. You are indeed, planning a very worthwhile assignment. I am enclosing a text of an address I gave to P&S students a few years ago on “My Odyssey to Women’s Health.”

I still have the letter in my old book files, and indeed, the story of her trailblazing work to ensure equitable and empathetic health care for women became one of the entries in the anthology. Inspired by Dr. Wallis and others, I joined AMWA as an early career physician, and at the 2007 AMWA meeting in Orlando, FL, I finally had the opportunity to meet Dr. Wallis in person. It had been some years since we had corresponded, so I wasn’t sure she would remember a junior physician, such as myself, given all of the important work that she had accomplished since that time. I needn’t have worried. She sat next to me during the conference and talked to me as if I were a long-time colleague.

The next time that we would see each other was 9 years later at her 95th birthday party, a wonderful celebration held by her family in California and attended by close friends, including a few of us from AMWA. Her son, Dr. James Wallis, gave a wonderful speech in her honor.

L – Dr. Eliza Chin, C-Dr. Lila Wallis, R- Dr. Ligaya Prystowski

I would visit her two more times and she would always talk to me avidly about her “armchair research,” ask about AMWA with genuine interest, and share with me new ideas of how the organization could grow and expand.

During one visit, she wrote a message for women in medicine and asked me to share it with the AMWA community:

March 12, 2019

My Dear Colleagues,

I am Lila A. Wallis MD, MACP, AMWA President in 1988 – 89.
On June 21, I will be 98 years old.
Our numbers are increasing.
What will happen if we put them to work? If we use our knowledge, skills and imagination to come up with ideas on better health for everyone? To increase the number and status of women physicians? To improve women’s health? To improve children’s health? To build enduring peace?

Get into your “armchair research” chair.
Put on your “thinking caps”!!!!
And send your ideas to ExecutiveDirector@amwa-doc.org.

With warm regards,
Dr. Lila Wallis

My last visit was in September 2019, just before the pandemic. Below is an excerpt from an article that I wrote after the visit.

L – Dr. Chin, C – Dr. Wallis, R – Dr. Gebhard

At age 98 years, Dr. Lila Wallis is still actively reading, writing, and – still advocating for AMWA!

“I encourage young women to go into medicine and become members of AMWA,” she said with a smile.

Dr. Wallis was president of AMWA from 1988-1989, and clearly her love for the organization has not waned over the decades. She highlighted the hallmark of AMWA’s multi-specialty membership. “I encourage members of AMWA to network across specialties because the territory where many specialties are expressed or researched is the most fertile for new applications in medicine in general – not only in medicine but across specialties in physics and in other sciences.”

Dr. Roberta Gebhard recalled how Dr. Wallis was a mentor to her in her early years as a family practitioner. “I remember when I lived in Montana, and I saw you on TV, testifying in Congress. That was when I first joined AMWA. You were an inspiration to me!”

Even now, Dr. Wallis continues to mentor and offer sage advice. She recommends that women physicians keep a diary. “I think we don’t realize…how rapidly medicine is changing. The adjustment that the physician has to make in order to adjust to the change requires quite a bit of agility. Everyone does it in a different way.” Back in her day, Dr. Wallis was at the forefront of change. She was a pioneer at a time when women’s health was becoming a recognized field. She promoted new ways of teaching the pelvic exam to medical students that ensured sensitivity to patients and also wrote a widely praised book on how to start an onsite daycare center at medical institutions. And finally, she concluded with a message that just might become our new membership renewal slogan—“…Keep the ties with AMWA for a source of ideas.”

How right she was, especially as we approach year three of this global pandemic and reflect on how much has changed. Agility and learning to pivot were clearly skills needed during the past 3 years, and yet we all adjusted to the change in different ways.

Dr. Wallis’ legacy will continue to live on in AMWA as we continue her work of promoting more equitable and inclusive health care for women. We hope you will “keep the ties” with us on this journey.

“Every woman physician is a leader. She had to be a leader to get where she is. She will be an even more effective leader if she belongs to AMWA.” — Dr. Lila Wallis

We welcome you to share memories of Dr. Wallis here.

Please also see Dr. Wallis in AMWA’s Blackwell Award Film, AMWA’s Blackwell Award Exhibit, and Faces of AMWA.

If you would like to make a donation to AMWA in her honor, you may do so here.

 

Dr. Eliza Chin (L) with Dr. Lila Wallis (R) reading the AMWA Centennial Book

AMWA Admin

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