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Science Alumni Profile: Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon Dr. Jane A. Petro '68
by Mary Ellen Collins
Dr. Jane A. Petro '68 was awarded an honorary doctorate degree at the 46th Commencement of Eckerd College in May 2009. She is also the 1980 recipient of the McArthur Alumni Award.
Jane Petro became a doctor on a dare. Her lab partner said she wouldn't get into medical school because she was a woman. She proved him wrong, and has enjoyed a distinguished career in plastic and reconstructive surgery even though medicine was not part of her childhood aspirations.
"I have diary entries that talk about wanting to be an intellectual, which to me meant being really smart, very witty, and living in Paris," she says, laughing.
She credits a 10th grade biology teacher for sparking her interest in science when he assigned original source material like François Jacob and Jacques Monod's Nobel Prize-winning paper on genetics and cellular biology. "The elegance of that paper made me think that a life studying science would be so great," she says.
On her first visit to Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College), she recalls that, "A student had hung a huge sign outside the window that said, Help Flog Sacred Cows. I looked at the sign and the waterfront and said 'This is where I'm going.'"
A biology major, she considered graduate programs in the philosophy of science when her lab partner paid for her to take the MCAT. She scored well, and was accepted at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine.
"I figured it was a win-win. The tuition was low, I could take all the basic sciences for two years, and if I didn't want to be a doctor, I could drop out... [But] when I first put on the white coat and saw a patient, it was transformative. I hadn't been aware of the intimacy of dealing with the most personal aspect of what it means to be a human being, and then helping the person."
Caring for a severely burned patient prompted her choice of specialization because "burn patients encompass everything in medicine. Burns affect all the systems of the body, so it forces you to use everything you know." She completed a plastic surgery residency and a fellowship in burn and microsurgery, and began a professional career that included twelve years as professor of surgery at New York Medical College and twenty years as chief of microsurgery and associate director of the burn center at Westchester County Medical Center.
In 2000, Dr. Petro decided she wanted to spend more time on humanitarian issues and sailing. She went into private practice and took extended periods of time to travel, lecture and do medical work in other countries, including setting up a burn hospital in Ghana and providing services through Healing the Children Northeast. Petro also continued a longtime personal commitment to domestic violence issues, for which the American Medical Women's Association honored her with its Community Service Award.
Looking back, Dr. Petro says she's most proud of having been a pioneer - one of only two women in her medical school class, and the 19th woman in the U.S. to be certified as a plastic surgeon. In addition to receiving Eckerd's McArthur Alumni Award, her work as a cosmetic reconstructive surgeon has received attention in numerous publications.
Although she retired from doing surgeries in 2009, she continues to run clinical research programs at two hospitals, see patients several days a month, and serve as editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Cosmetic Surgery.
"There are always incredible new things to do," she says. "In Brazil, I just made a connection with the head of the International Plastic Surgery Association, and we're already engaged in new research projects on breast reconstruction surgery and stem cells."
Dr. Petro is a perfect example to aspiring physicians of how to balance a career with one's personal interests. Whenever she offers advice to young people, she says, "It's about following your passion, but it's also a matter of being open to the possibilities and the challenges. Some of that comes from being a surgeon - you can't plan everything you're going to do - you have to go with the flow. I developed that flexibility, and applied it to every area of my life."
This feature is the tenth in a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.
Read Previous Science Profiles:
Olester Benson '74
Rebecca Helm '07
Quinton Zondervan '92 and Vincent Coljee '90
Carlos Barbas '85
Paul Cheney '69
Harry Johns '90
Jeffrey Dodge '84