Students who head to college primarily to prepare for a career could learn a lot from someone like Edyth Hull Schoenrich. She’s had five of them at least, not counting marriage and motherhood—or her recent passion for ballooning.
At eighty-three, she finds that the word “retirement” has yet to enter her vocabulary. Currently, she is an academic administrator at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, where in 1996 a chair was named in her honor.
She works as an adviser to students and applicants for the master of public health program and helps assess the curriculum to make sure it is adequately preparing students for the challenges they will face—no small task when public-health officials must deal with everything from outbreaks of strange new diseases to threats of bio-terrorism. It’s the kind of multi-faceted job best filled by someone with Schoenrich’s flair for seeing the big picture and forging connections between knowledge and practice.
This latest career flowed from her previous ones—all of them connected to medicine, a field she first aspired to as a sixth-grader in Cleveland, marveling at the wonders of tadpoles turning into frogs and seeds turning into sprouts in Miss Hyde’s nature-science classroom.
Schoenrich arrived at Duke in the fall of 1937, well before the civil-rights movement. But, even then, she showed a disregard for artificial barriers, racial or otherwise. She recalls one memorable train trip to Durham: “I was having a very interesting conversation with a young black man, a sailor. When the train got to Lynchburg, a conductor told me to move to another car. I refused.” The train stopped for a long while. She was asked again to move and again refused. “Finally, it started up, and we continued our conversation”—making her, at least briefly, something of a Rosa Parks in reverse.
After graduating, she began a master’s program in psychology, and married Carlos Schoenrich, a doctoral candidate in the same field. When World War II took him to the South Pacific, she applied to medical schools, ending up at the University of Chicago, where she earned her M.D.
She and Carlos headed to Baltimore in June 1948. He established a distinguished career in psychology, and she began her residency at Johns Hopkins, beginning a connection with the university that has continued in one form or another ever since. She specialized in internal medicine, became a chief resident (then rare for a woman), and held post-doctoral fellowships in oncology and hematology.
Clinical practice was rewarding, Schoenrich says, but, after her two children were born, she no longer seemed to need “the emotional charge that comes when a patient grabs your hand and says, ‘You saved my life.’ ” She says she began to think, instead, about ways of preventing illness and, when the opportunity presented itself, signed on with the state of Maryland to run adult preventive services.
She had the medical expertise for the job, but not other essential tools such as knowledge of epidemiology. So she went back to Hopkins part-time and received her M.P.H. in 1971, joining the faculty soon afterward to teach health policy and management.
Then in 1977, D.A. Henderson, the man who led the World Health Organization’s campaign to eradicate smallpox, was named to head the public-health school and tapped her as his top academic dean. She left the post upon turning sixty-five, but Henderson was on the phone the next morning asking her to come back and develop master’s programs for people already working full-time in public health.
And there she remains, when she and her husband are not floating among the snow-covered Alps—“almost a spiritual experience,” she says—or embarking on some other ballooning adventure.