Sisters’ work comes to light through brother’s innovations
by Fran Fawcett-Peterson
It is not every day that a new discipline is carved out, and certainly not one as vital to humanity as the one established by sisters Selma and Lois DeBakey. Their life’s work, biomedical communication, has had a remarkable impact on the way medical information is communicated, not only within the medical community, but also between physicians and their patients. Because the public can now easily understand the language of medicine, it is easier to manage health care.
Selma and Lois DeBakey are immensely private. These diminutive Southern women are the undisputed grand dames of American medical literature. Both are tenured professors of Scientific Communications at Baylor College of Medicine. Having served on editorial boards and panels for the American Heritage Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the National Library of Medicine, the sisters have helped set the standards for scientific papers and journal submissions. They are the editors and authors of several medical textbooks and scientific journal articles.
The DeBakey sisters’ second career is their brother. They are devoted to the famed Houston super surgeon, Dr. Michael E. DeBakey. Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine, says, “Mike has always been their top priority.”
Many great leaders in the medical world expressed a degree of envy about the sisters’ devotion to their brother. Long-time family friend, Dr. Philip A. Salem, director of cancer research at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, describes Lois and Selma as Dr. DeBakey’s “angels.” “Never in history has such a great man had two sisters who supported and helped him as much as these two. They are a part of his legend,” he says.
The DeBakeys are children of immigrant Lebanese Christians who settled in Lake Charles, La. They credit their parents and the school system in their small town for their success. They read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica before graduating from high school and had a solid understanding of Latin, the root of the language of medicine.
Michael, the eldest of six children, and brother Ernest attended Tulane University and became surgeons. Selma earned her Bachelor’s degree with honors in languages from Sophie Newcomb College. Lois earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Newcomb and her Ph.D. from Tulane in literature, linguistics and biostatistics.
Early in his medical career, Michael noticed the poor quality of scientific writing and encouraged his sisters to use their writing talents to improve medical communication.
While still in graduate school, Selma began helping Michael through researching, translating and abridging articles and manuscripts for publication. Selma and Lois continue that work to this day.
“In putting his ideas, inventions and creations into a language that people understand, they furthered his career and thus the legend of Dr. Michael DeBakey,” Dr. Salem says. Other prominent physicians describe the sisters as his “secret weapons.”
Their biomedical writing course at Tulane was the first curriculum-approved course in medical communications at a United States medical school. In addition to the Tulane courses, they were invited to present seminars at major international medical conferences. The courses became so popular that they had two- and three-year waiting lists for enrollment.
“Telling doctors how to use the English language can be almost a slap in the face,” Lois says. “But when you hear or read such statements as, ‘All of the seven patients who died never completely regained consciousness,’ you know help is needed.” To soften the blow, Lois and Selma commissioned Houston Post artist Dick Putney to write a series of humorous cartoons to fill their seminars with laughter.
Coming to Houston
It took some work on Michael’s part to convince the sisters to move to Houston, Lois says. To do so, he enlisted the help of major players in the Houston medical arena. “The heads of the major institutions of medicine in Houston asked us to move our work here, but, we were treated very well at Tulane,” she says.
But, for their brother and his work, the sisters made the move, arriving in time for momentous changes. In 1969, Baylor College of Medicine became an independent school. Michael DeBakey was appointed as the first president and continued his work as chairman of the department of surgery. With the complex dynamics of his life, he needed people he could trust.
“Deep down, you really depend on your siblings for the kind of support that is very subtle, but, nonetheless, is there,” DeBakey says. “You share your thoughts with them, even though you might not be able to share them with others. You don’t feel alone.”
Dr. Salem says they were invaluable to Michael: “They were his buffer, his filter and his propellers. His success is directly attributable to their devotion.”
Dr. Antonio Gotto, dean of Weill Cornell Medical College is co-author of “The Living Heart” book series with Michael DeBakey. “Lois and Selma were critical factors in his success and provided him with invaluable support every step of the way,” he says. “They are leaders in the field of academic medical writing and have received numerous awards in recognition of their accomplishments. They are true pioneers in this field.”
Lois’ book, The Scientific Journal: Editorial Policies and Practices: Guidelines for Editors, Reviewers and Authors, is considered the first definitive edition for medical journal editors. In her acknowledgement in Medicine: Preserving the Passion in the 21st Century, which she co-edited with Phil Manning, Lois writes, “My brother Michael directed my sister Selma and me into a truly exciting and fulfilling career. A man of vision, dedication and ingenuity, he recognized the need for instruction in medical writing, editing and speech, and he encouraged us to establish this new discipline. To Selma — my preceptor and alter ego — goes my unbounded gratitude, not only for her sage counsel …, but for her superb tutelage, unstinting support, and sororal devotion throughout my life.”
In his article, “Salute to the Professionals,” Dr. Franz Ingelfinger, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, may have expressed it best when he wrote: “…the disciples of Aesculapius have their own guides to better speaking and writing, and among them none compares to the DeBakey sisters.”
While Dr. Michael DeBakey casts a large shadow with his gigantic contributions to the field of medicine, Lois and Selma cast a shadow as well. Because of their innovative and meritorious contributions to medical and scientific communications, laypersons can understand the contributions of Michael and other doctors and scientists. Their work, while away from the spotlight, has opened the door of patient-doctor communication for years to come.