This year, the alumnae/i association, AAVC, turns 150. Throughout 2021, the College will be celebrating this anniversary by highlighting a few of Vassar’s most notable alumnae/i in architecture, arts, business, education, entertainment, healthcare, humanitarian efforts, law, social justice, and technology. Join us in congratulating Barbara Barlow, our first example of the excellence and world-changing spirit displayed by Vassar alumnae/i.
Special Lecturer/Professor Emerita of Surgery, Epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health; Executive Director, Injury Free Coalition for Kids
Protecting children nationwide from preventable injuries
One of the nation’s first doctors to specialize in pediatric surgery, Dr. Barbara Barlow earned her medical degree at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, completed her residency at Bronx Municipal Hospital, and was the first woman Pediatric Surgery Fellow at Babies Hospital, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. Though she had originally planned to become a medical missionary to help those who lacked care in other countries, what she saw during her training set her on a new path.
“When I went through surgical training, it was in the Bronx at the height of the crack epidemic,” she recalled. “When I rotated through pediatric surgery, here were all these sweet little children and babies and what was wrong with them was not their fault. They got shot, and they fell out windows, and they got hit by cars, and I decided I had to do something about it.”
Immediately after finishing her training in 1975, Barlow became the Chief of Pediatric Surgery at Harlem Hospital. In the late 1970s, she supported a new law requiring New York City landlords to install window guards and worked with the city on an educational campaign, “Children Can’t Fly,” to warn parents of the dangers of window falls. By 1981, the number of injuries to children in Harlem from falling out of windows had decreased by 96 percent. In 1988, Barlow founded the Injury Free Coalition for Kids at Harlem Hospital. Funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has allowed the coalition to create 40 member-sites at Level 1 trauma centers across the country. More recent projects include constructing safe play spaces in cities impacted by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the events of 9/11. Barlow retired from Harlem Hospital as Director of Surgery in 2009, but her work with the coalition is still going strong. A recipient of dozens of awards and honors, Barlow received the CDC Foundation Hero Award in 2011 for “her leadership and innovation in working with communities to implement science-based approaches to reducing injuries to children.”
Barlow said attending Vassar “made all the difference in my life.” She was originally attracted to the College because of its activist spirit. “I went to Vassar because Vassar had educated women who were able to break barriers and do things,” she said. “They had women who were really unique and outstanding and also had voices that were bumping up against society, and I said ‘This is for me!’ It made me a pit bull!” Barlow majored in psychology because there was no clearly defined pre-med path at the time. A grant from the College upon her graduation allowed her to pursue post-graduate study in physics and chemistry at other universities before applying to medical school—her dream since age five. Still, it was not easy for any woman to enter the medical profession 60 years ago. “There weren’t lady surgeons—oh my goodness, I had to talk my way into that!” she remembered. But her mentors at Vassar encouraged her to go for it. “They made me say [to myself], it doesn’t matter that you’re a woman; you just have to work harder than any of the guys and you can get whatever you want. It was a great experience—I loved Vassar.”
Barlow is working to build on the success of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids’ recent National Injury Prevention Day, held on November 18, 2020. In a dramatic show of solidarity with the cause, cities across the nation illuminated prominent buildings, bridges, and even sports arenas with green light—a symbol of safety—in order to “light the way toward childhood injury prevention.” Barlow is currently planning a national conference on gun safety. “It seems I’m going to work forever,” she said. “That’s OK – it is gratifying as well as fun.”