It would seem that such a pioneer in the industry would require a tough-as-nails personality. Howell, however, displays an insightful, compassionate, mother-like quality that shatters the preconceived image of a woman who defied gender boundaries.
“I actually had a hard time in medical school because all of a sudden I didn’t feel like I was in the right place,” she said.
It wasn’t the fact that she was only one of four women in the entire medical school of nearly 200 students that made her feel out of place. It was the coldness by which she was told to treat her patients.
“I didn’t like the way the teachers made you isolate yourself from the patient. That was the golden rule — don’t get close to your patient because then you’ll lose your relative ability to make hard diagnoses and tell hard stories,” she recalled. “I’ve never been unkind to anybody in my life, and I’ve always nurtured everybody that I’ve come near, so I didn’t like the idea of not taking care of my patients and sitting with them and talking with them.”
Finally, she decided that so long as she graduated, she could pursue her own practice in her own way.
And that’s exactly what she did.
Howell’s compassion led her to become a trusted physician among her young patients and their parents, a knowledgeable professor and faculty member at several prestigious medical universities, and ultimately led her to help found San Diego Hospice alongside the late benefactress Joan Kroc.
Howell, who has been breaking boundaries since youth, continues to do so with a youthful vigor, a mindset that is as sharp as ever and an energetic commitment to promoting women’s health.
“I’ve been trying to retire since 1991, and I haven’t succeeded yet,” joked Howell, who, though she formally retired that year, is still working hard — at 88 years old.
Howell continued to focus on improving lives through her work as a community volunteer and philanthropist after her retirement.
“Having worked full-time all the time, I never had time to join anything. I didn’t belong to any women’s groups because medicine doesn’t give you time,” she said.
Finally, with a bit more time on her hands, Howell joined the La Jolla Woman’s Club and Soroptimist International of La Jolla.
“I thought, ‘Now, I’ll only do works in the community. I won’t do any more medicine,’” she said.
Despite her intent, the first position Howell held was as chairwoman of the Soroptimists’ health committee, where she soon discovered that women had a difficult time getting consistent answers from their doctors — for example, in inquiries about menopause.
“When doctors give you different answers, it’s because they don’t know. What they’re doing is giving you their best understanding themselves from their readings and their studies,” she said. “They don’t know enough. Women’s studies haven’t been done enough.”
After sending a member of her health committee to Washington, D.C. to find out what national initiatives were being undertaken in the field of women’s health — and finding none — Howell’s health committee decided to hold a symposium on menopause.
“We got six national speakers, and each one of them spoke on their piece of menopausal knowledge,” she said. “The conclusion of the meeting was that we don’t know enough about menopause. So we thought, ‘Okay, that’s just where we started, but what are we going to do about it?’”
Thanks to the popularity of the symposium, the committee earned a small sum, which organizers wanted to use to help improve the state of women’s health research.
“If you give it to a lab, it’ll disappear overnight, so I thought we’d better do something that’s a good investment,” she said.
The Soroptimists decided to invest in education through a scholarship program for undergraduate students’ research.
“It doesn’t have to be medicine. It can be nursing, social work, economics, psychology — just as long as it benefits the health of women,” she said.
Using the first $4,000 raised from the symposium, the Soroptimists were able to grant two scholarships to undergraduate UCSD students for the purposes of improving women’s health through research.
After four years of successful fundraising and grant giving, the Soroptimists determined the program should become independent of its parent organization.
“With fear and trepidation, we spun free and became a 501(c)3 in 1995 — just as ignorant as we were before,” said Howell.
The result was the Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research. To date, the scholarship program has awarded $416,000 to more than 170 scholars for research into women’s health topics including cancer, psychiatry and economics.
“There’s no limit if it’s well-written, well thought through, the science is sound and it benefits women,” she said. “It can’t be anything but positive for women because no matter what field of research you’re in, it’s going to improve women’s health care.”
Howell said advancements in wo-men’s healthcare have drastically improved over the years, but they still have a long way to go.
“Research wasn’t being done on women in my day and that lasted well up to the ’80s,” she said. “It’s far better, but it’s still far from where it has to go. Women are still treated differently up and down the line, even up to government grants and writing. Anything you can think of, it’s always the women and the men. Never the human.”
With Howell at the helm, the Doris Howell Foundation continues to forge through in the study of women’s health through its scholarship program as well as educational outreach programs.
For more information about the foundation, visit www.howellfoundation.org.
The Doris Howell Foundation will present a two-part forum, “Intentional Happiness,” focusing on easy-to-use tools to help people increase happiness starting on Sept. 25.
“Life is full of unhappiness and problems and disasters and losses. There’s an awful lot to be unhappy about, but if you let yourself get into that mood, that’s where you’ll sink because you’ll just keep going down,” said Howell. “I think a lot of people take it for granted that it’s your responsibility to be happy.
“It’s different for everybody. You can’t say there’s one way to be happy, but most people would like to laugh a little more, smile a little more and bring their children up in a happy environment,” she said. “Logically, you can’t be happy all the time, but you have to find that wonderful balance that works in your family.”
The “Intentional Happiness” forum will feature speakers including Kristin Layous, a student and researcher on happiness at UC Riverside and Peg Neuhauser, business mediator and author of “I Should Be Burnt Out By Now, So How Come I’m Not?” The forum will take place Sept. 25 and Nov. 13 at 6 p.m. at the McMillin Event Center at Liberty Station, located at 2875 Dewey Road. To register, visit www.howellfoundation.org. The cost of the program is $60 for the full series or $35 per session.