World Class, World Renowned and World Changing
Preeminent medical researcher and women’s health advocate proves women ‘can have it all,’ encourages sisters to define that for themselves
June 4, 2009
For anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the long, illustrious and well-documented career of Dr. Lila Ehrenstein Nachtigall, it’s almost impossible to believe that when this world-renowned physician and researcher entered New York City’s Brooklyn College before her 16th birthday, her plans for the future did not include medicine.
As a bright, talented young leader and devoted student, Lila aspired to a much more traditional career for well-educated women in the ’50s: teaching – a respectable and promising profession to be sure. But, as her friends and soon-to-be-husband pointed out, she had the capacity to do more and to be more (a familiar mantra to Phi Sigma Sigma sisters).
“I had never considered medicine as an option,” Lila explains. “But that changed.”
Even before graduating from Brooklyn College with her B.A., she began transitioning to Columbia University’s bachelor of science program, ultimately earning her medical degree from New York University – the same School of Medicine where she has served as a noted professor of obstetrics and gynecology for more than three decades.
Today, as one of the world’s leading reproductive endocrinologists, a vocal advocate for women’s health and a recognized expert on estrogen and menopause who is regularly quoted by international media, Lila – who still works 10-hour days at age 75 – cannot imagine being anything but a doctor.
It’s equally fair to say the world cannot envision her in another role, either, considering the immeasurable and indelible impact her career has had on women’s health and modern medicine.
Honoring the past
In some ways, things haven’t changed much since Lila first joined our Beta Nu Chapter at Brooklyn College in 1955, quickly becoming president of the college Panhellenic council back when the chapter was still active and thriving. Today, she lives and commutes from the very same Manhattan home where she grew up, just a few blocks from Central Park.
Her boyfriend from college is her husband now – Dr. Richard Nachtigall, a renowned physician and researcher in his own right, and the medical director of PepsiCo-World Corp. They’ve been married more than 51 years and have three children: two who’ve become physicians themselves, and one who is New York’s special deputy attorney general for public integrity.
Lila is still very well known among sisters in the New York metropolitan area as well as within the Fraternity, having spoken at Conventions and, at one point, earning the Phi Sigma Sigma Founders’ Award for Outstanding Alumnae.
And, to this day, her Beta Nu sister Annette Brounstein Lieberman, now living in Chestnut Hill, Mass., remains one of her dearest friends. “She couldn’t be closer to me if she were my real sister,” Lila says, explaining how – for many, many years – they gathered their husbands, children and grandchildren together during the holidays, like one big, happy family.
Larger than life
In almost all other ways, however, Lila’s life has changed dramatically from her college years - so much so that her accomplishments could be called "larger than life." Indeed, they have firmly established her as one of Phi Sigma Sigma’s most distinguished alumnae in its nearly 100-year history:
- She helped launch public awareness about menopause, the role estrogen plays in women’s health, and the benefits and potential risks associated with hormone replacement therapy, an area of research she pioneered in the 1970s.
- The author of 500 journal articles and three books, her top-selling “Estrogen” title is considered a definitive text on the subject. Now in its third edition with more than 200,000 copies sold, the book is published worldwide in as many as seven languages.
- Lila is frequently contacted by some of the world’s most respected media organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, "Oprah," "Good Morning America" and major consumer magazines.
- She’s earned multiple awards and accolades, including a peer-nominated honor in 2001 for “Breaking Ground in Women’s Health” by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; being named one of New York City’s “Best Doctors” in New York magazine; and serving as a past president of the North American Menopause Society, for which she is still a spokesperson.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that this medical pioneer and lifetime researcher has become a bit of a lightning rod for some people who disagree with her work. She’s controversial, and she’s OK with that – because she can back her views with decades of science and, in her line of work, it's par for the course.
“Baby Boomers, especially, are very vocal about women’s issues,” she explains. “They care about and want to discuss the issues I research, and there’s a greater demand for information on these topics than ever before.” Questions are bound to arise, she adds - and that’s the nature of science.
“As a physician, I face an ethical issue every minute, and consider myself a very moral person,” she explains in the book, “Jewish Mothers,” which profiled her and physician-daughter Margaret – also a reproductive endocrinologist with whom she shares a medical practice in the city. “I think physicians have to be careful not to play God, and to put the patient first,” Lila concludes.
Looking back on her life and what she's learned from it, Lila says there are two especially meaningful pieces of advice she can share with her Phi Sigma Sigma sisters, no matter what age or stage of life they find themselves in.
First, recognize that women will always be different from men in some respects - and that's OK. “We’ll always have multiple roles to play…. We want equality, yes – but we’re never going to get schools to call the father first,” she says with a light laugh. Women are natural-born caretakers, and we can and should embrace that important role – even when we’re committed to a career.
For example, despite her intense work schedule, Lila worked hard to be as active in her
children's lives as possible while they were growing up. She proudly notes she was present at the birth of each of
her nine grandchildren. Keeping family a priority isn't always easy, but it's critical to your happiness and well-being, she says.
Second, explore a life that’s uniquely yours – achieving dreams that are yours, because you want to, not because you have to. “Women today can ‘do it all,’ absolutely. But you need to understand you don’t have to do all, unless you want to,” Lila says.
“If you decide you do want it all – motherhood, a career, a very full and active life – then rely on the close bonds of friendship and sisterhood to give you the support you need. It is possible to be a great wife and mother and professional. But if a different path appeals to you, and that’s what you want, you need to feel comfortable exploring what is right for you.”
Because, in the end, that’s what every Phi Sigma Sigma sister is called to do – to be as individual and courageous as Dr. Lila Ehrenstein Nachtigall, and to pursue the best within us, knowing that is the true secret to success, wherever the journey ultimately leads.
Learn more about Dr. Lila Ehrenstein Nachtigall:
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