Doctor’s leadership in women’s health to be honored with endowed chair

Nov. 14, 2013

by Susan Lampert Smith

Gloria Sarto has led the way during decades of progress in women’s health care, and she’d like today’s young women to know something: “It wasn’t always this way.”

Sarto, professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, remembers clearly:

  • Having her hospital privileges yanked at the old Madison General Hospital when, as an early Lamaze supporter, she allowed a non-medical labor coach into the delivery room.
  • Doing her residency internship at Cleveland General Hospital when young women came into the emergency room bleeding from inserting bichloride of mercury tablets in their vaginas in an attempt to end their pregnancies.
  • Being a young resident when a woman couldn’t have a tubal ligation without her husband’s permission, and when college students would arrive at the Emergency Department bleeding and infected from botched, back-alley abortions.

Photo: Gloria Sarto

Gloria Sarto

And Sarto would be the first to tell you that as much as things have changed, more change needs to happen — especially for low-income and minority women.

“When I returned to Wisconsin (in the late 1990s), I was appalled to learn that our mortality rate for African-American infants was among the worst in the country,’’ says Sarto.

To ensure that Sarto’s remarkable life, career and legacy are remembered in perpetuity, the UW-Madison Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology has created a short documentary, which will premiere Thursday, Nov. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. The event is free and open to the public, but attendees must RSVP by Friday by contacting Karleen Kleeman at karleen.kleemann@supportuw.org or calling 608-262-5250.

Although the focus of this event is telling the story of Sarto’s life, it will help launch a special campaign to fund the Gloria E. Sarto Chair in Women’s Health and Health Equity Research.

Sarto’s life is an American story. Born to immigrant parents from southern Italy and the Netherlands, she was a child of the Great Depression and attended a two-room schoolhouse near Franksville in Racine County. She wrote in 9th grade that her ambition was to be a doctor, but that it was a goal she’d have to work towards.

She and her mother went to see about enrolling at Marquette University, but the family couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, she earned a nursing degree at St. Luke’s in Racine, and worked 40 hours a week as a labor and delivery nurse while taking premed classes at UW-Milwaukee.

At 83, Sarto is still hard at work on research on women’s health disparities at the UW’s Center for Women’s Health and Health Disparities Research.

“I used to fall asleep at the wheel at stoplights and other drivers would honk to wake me up,’’ she recalls. She says she really didn’t have a problem being admitted to the University of Wisconsin Medical School as one of six women in the class of 1958.

She went on to do her residency at the behest of Ben Peckham, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology and a lifelong mentor. She earned a Ph.D. in genetics as well, and made the first prenatal diagnosis in Wisconsin using the new technique of amniocentesis. She was involved in other changes, including clinical trials for Clomid, the first reliable fertility drug.

Although books like “Our Bodies, Ourselves” informed women about taking control over their health care, Sarto always treated patients as equal partners in their care. She was the first woman president in the century-old American Gynecological and Obstetrical Society’s history.

She recalls being at a high-level national meeting, when the board of directors had an invitation to golf at a private course that didn’t allow women. The men decided to play at a public course so that Sarto could golf along with them.

Throughout her career, Sarto never forgot her humble beginnings or the women who still needed care they weren’t getting. When she was on the faculty at Northwestern University Medical School in the late 1970s, she came up with the idea of a mobile van to provide prenatal education to women who lived in public housing projects.

“Honoring Dr. Sarto’s remarkable career by creating a chair in her name will ensure that health equity research continues in a robust manner.”

Laurel Rice

“I based it on the mobile library that used to come to the rural areas when I was a kid,’’ she says, saying she was never worried about safety, even when visiting such areas as the former Cabrini-Green housing complex. “People knew we were there for the good, and they left us alone.”

On the national level, Sarto was involved in helping create the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes for Health in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She worked alongside such leaders as former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder and Society for Women's Health Researchfounder Florence Haseltine.

“Until then, almost all health research was based on men,’’ she recalls. “Women wanted to have some attention to their health, other than their reproductive health.”

Sarto was a trail blazer on the personal level, too. When she was chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of New Mexico, she and her partner, Lisa Fromm-Sarto, became the first same-sex couple in the state to be granted equal adoption rights. Their daughters — Brittany, 24; Brooke, 22; Breeze, 19, and Brighton, 18 — are all college students.

At 83, Sarto is still hard at work on research on women’s health disparities at the UW’s Center for Women’s Health and Health Disparities Research.

“Here at the University of Wisconsin, we’re so fortunate to have been part of Gloria Sarto’s long career in women’s health,’’ says Laurel Rice, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Honoring Dr. Sarto’s remarkable career by creating a chair in her name will ensure that health equity research continues in a robust manner and that the department is able to recruit and retain the absolutely top scholars in women’s health and health equity research.”