2021 Pearl Birnbaum Hurwitz Award is presented to Dr. Ruby Mendenhall

The Arnold P. Gold Foundation is pleased to announce that the 2021 Pearl Birnbaum Hurwitz Humanism in Healthcare Award will be presented to Dr. Ruby Mendenhall, a visionary leader and interdisciplinary researcher who has galvanized students, faculty, community groups, and citizen scientists to advance the shared quest for a more equitable, healthy and just world for all.

Dr. Mendenhall, MPP, PhD, is the Kathryn Lee Baynes Dallenbauch Professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Associate Dean for Diversity and Democratization of Health Innovation at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine. She is also the Co-Director of STEM Illinois and the Director of the medical school’s new Health Maker Lab node (Designing Resiliency and Well-being).

“Dr. Mendenhall brings her deep research expertise, combined with her extraordinary innovation, collaboration, and compassion, to the critical work of advancing humanism for all,” said Dr. Richard I. Levin, President and CEO of the Gold Foundation. “We are privileged to be honoring Dr. Mendenhall and recognizing her profound, far-reaching impact in health equity.”

The Pearl Birnbaum Hurwitz Award for Humanism in Healthcare honors a woman who exemplifies humanism and has advanced, through her scholarship, advocacy, leadership or work, the well-being of underserved or vulnerable populations in the healthcare arena. Through this annual award, the Gold Foundation honors the spirit of Ms. Pearl Birnbaum Hurwitz, the founder of Arc of Massachusetts, who was inspired by her son to create change for children with disabilities.

“Throughout our Carle Illinois College of Medicine and across the University of Illinois, Ruby is viewed as a strong and vocal advocate for the underserved,” wrote Dr. Stephen Boppart, Executive Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer at Carle Illinois College of Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in his nomination of Dr. Mendenhall. “She is respected and revered as a champion, a leader, and a personal colleague who expresses her concern for community dynamics and how these affect the opportunities and abilities of under-represented students in higher education, including medical schools.”

She has been instrumental not only in making healthcare accessible to the underserved but also in making the profession of healthcare accessible to all, especially students in underrepresented groups. She was instrumental in establishing a new Office of Diversity and Inclusive Excellence at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine and crafting a college-wide anti-racism statement on Racism as a Health Crisis.

Among her multitude of research projects, Dr. Mendenhall examines how living in racially segregated neighborhoods with high levels of violence affects Black mothers’ mental and physical health, including through gene expression in genes that regulate the immune system. She also studies the role of Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) in social mobility and health outcomes and how families use these credits to secure safe, affordable housing, a key factor in health. She leverages big data to recover the lost history of Black women, using topic modeling and data visualization to analyze over 800,000 documents from 1740 to 2014. In addition, her research includes assessing the impact of racial microaggressions on students of color on predominantly white campuses, and the impact of microaggressions on women of color in engineering.

Dr. Mendenhall is on the leadership team of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine’s Health Maker Lab, an initiative to bring together students, faculty and community entrepreneurs throughout Illinois to spark innovative solutions to health, particularly health disparities. The Health Maker Lab is currently working on four projects that address childhood trauma, gun violence, and art as therapy. The program also features an annual Health Make-A-Thon competition to encourage solutions to health challenges in the state. Finalists pitch their ideas to a “Dolphin Tank” of judges (friendlier than the “Shark Tank” of the ABC reality show) and compete for $10,000 in lab resources to create a real prototype of their concept. Among this competition’s finalists have been a team of 9-year-old students (4th grade) from underrepresented groups who proposed the design of a school calming courtyard space to help students manage their stress.

Dr. Mendenhall’s work crosses myriad fields. She exemplifies collaborative, interdisciplinary leadership; she is a professor in Sociology, African American Studies, Urban and Regional Planning, Gender and Women’s Studies, and Social Work, as well as an affiliate of the university’s Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology; Women and Gender in Global Perspectives; the Cline Center for Advance Social Research; Epstein Health Law and Policy Program; Family Law and Policy Program, the Institute of Government and Public Affairs and the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. She also collaborates with artists to present findings in ways that are accessible to the broader community.

Her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the City of Chicago Office of the Mayor, and the National Science Foundation. She was recently awarded a $500,000 grant by the MacArthur Foundation to create a new training program programming to foster a culture of innovation around the health and well-being of mainly Black and Latinx high school students and young adults in Chicago. She has published extensively on health-related topics, including the medicalization of poverty, genomics, depression, stress, resiliency, and the design of spaces of hope. She recently was a co-host of the 2021 Collective Trauma Summit.

Dr. Mendenhall “exemplifies the humanistic forces that are necessary to advocate for and advance the well-being of underserved and at-risk populations in health and their healthcare.  Her role in our College of Medicine has only served as a launch-pad for her scholarship and leadership, from which so many in our community, state, and nation benefit,” wrote Dr. Boppart. “It is through visionaries and leaders like Ruby that we can all envision a future where racial disparities no longer exist in health and healthcare, and the racial demographics of our physicians reflect the demographics of the communities and patients they serve.”

Honorable Mentions

The Gold Foundation is also recognizing two remarkable women with honorable mentions in 2021:

Lara Carson Weinstein, MD, MPH, DrPH, Thomas Jefferson University Department of Family & Community Medicine, Project HOME, Pathways to Housing PA

Dr. Lara Weinstein is being honored for her pioneering work in ensuring people experiencing homelessness and other underserved communities receive holistic, trauma-informed care. She has played an instrumental role in developing an unparalleled partnership between North Philadelphia community health clinics serving homeless populations with mental illness and chronic diseases and Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College.

Her advocacy and actions led to the development of JeffHOPE, an organization created to address healthcare needs of the city’s underserved community by bringing medical students and faculty to homeless shelters to provide free medical care and patient advocacy services. Twenty-five years later, JeffHOPE is a leader in student-run free clinics.

Dr. Weinstein is also credited with bringing healthcare under the umbrella of Project HOME, the city’s leading organization in providing comprehensive services to people experiencing homelessness. Dr. Weinstein began her work with Project HOME in 1995 during her residency at Jefferson by initiating a free weekly volunteer-run neighborhood clinic. This clinic, the first of its kind at Project HOME, later became the foundation for the Stephen Klein Wellness Center, a comprehensive Federally Qualified Health Center serving North Philadelphia.

Dr. Weinstein is a primary care physician at Pathways to Housing PA, which provides permanent supportive housing and integrated care to people experiencing homelessness. She is also an Associate Professor at Thomas Jefferson University’s Department of Family and Community Medicine.

Ashley Katzenstein, a fourth-year medical student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, wrote in her nomination: “To put it quite simply, Lara is nothing short of an inspiration to everyone who meets her. Her work epitomizes what a true physician should aspire to, with endless compassion and empathy for the patients she serves.”

Mildred MG Olivier, MD, Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science

Dr. Mildred Olivier is being honored for her tremendous work to treat glaucoma and prevent blindness in at-risk communities, specifically those of Black and Afro-Caribbean heritage, as well as her compassion and advocacy in fostering pathways to medical school for underrepresented communities.

Dr. Olivier travels frequently to Haiti, her ancestral homeland, to teach fellow ophthalmologists and educators as well as to perform eye surgeries in underserved communities. People in African American and Afro-Caribbean communities experience blindness from glaucoma at rates 8-10 times higher than white people.

To help serve disadvantaged communities in Haiti long term, Dr. Olivier has also worked to enlist philanthropic support for medical missions. She is the recipient of several awards, including the Humanitarian Award by the American Glaucoma Society and the American Medical Association.

Dr. Olivier is Assistant Dean for Diversity and Director of Global Health at the Chicago Medical School. She has spearheaded symposiums and programs to help remove barriers for underrepresented groups from entering the healthcare field and shed light on racism in healthcare. After serving on the Board of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, she created the Minority Ophthalmology Mentoring program, now in its fifth year, and has been Co-Investigator for the NEI supported Rabb-Venable Excellence in Ophthalmology program since 2007.

Dr. Judy Potashkin, Chicago Medical School’s Director of Faculty Affairs, wrote in her nomination: “Dr. Olivier is both a clinician-educator and a catalyst for engaging other healthcare workers in compassionate, patient-centered care.”

About Pearl Birnbaum Hurwitz

Pearl Birnbaum Hurwitz (1907-1993) was an advocate and humanitarian who championed the needs of vulnerable populations and fought for legislation to protect and bolster the lives of individuals who, by virtue of physical, social or economic circumstances, required services. One of her sons was born with intellectual disabilities and she quickly became a leader in the movement to provide services and support for children with disabilities and their families, especially in the Massachusetts area. She was the founding president of the Arc of Massachusetts.

The award in her name was established in 2014 by a generous gift from Dr. Ronald Arky, the Daniel D. Federman Professor of Medicine and Medical Education at the Harvard Medical School and Master of the Francis Weld Peabody Society at that School. As a young doctor, Dr. Arky was greatly influenced by his time spent with Pearl and her husband, Dr. David Hurwitz.

Read more about Pearl Birnbaum Hurwitz and her inspiring essay from 1957.

Read about 2020 honoree Nani Cuadrado; 2019 honoree Dr. Nancy Oriol; 2018 honoree Dr. Dinali Fernando; 2017 honoree Dr. Veda Johnson; and inaugural honoree Dr. Mardge Cohen.

Munira Syeda

Munira Syeda is a contributing writer to the Gold Foundation.