Nanette Wenger, Alpha - Hunter College

Greek at Heart

World-renowned cardiologist’s passion for excellence inspires us to Aim High

March 3, 2009
Updated July 22, 2010 - Georgia Woman of the Year

DR. NANETTE KASS WENGER – the daughter of Russian immigrants, a world-renowned cardiologist, women’s pioneer and one of Phi Sigma Sigma’s most accomplished sisters – has always been Greek at heart.

Even before joining our historic Alpha Chapter at Hunter College in 1949 and becoming one of the first women to earn a medical degree at Harvard, Nanette passionately pursued excellence in every aspect of her life – defining what it truly means to be “Greek.”

As a young New Yorker who loved ballet dancing and museum trips, she read and studied voraciously – not to earn accolades, but purely for learning’s sake.

In high school, she rolled bandages for the soldiers of World War II, among the many service projects she devoted time to in her local and Jewish communities. And thanks to parents who challenged her to excel, she believed wholeheartedly that nothing could keep her from achieving whatever she set her mind to – and, further, that everyone had the right to pursue their own dreams, regardless of background or gender.

Of course, we recognize those qualities today as the three core values cherished by all Phi Sigma Sigmas: lifelong learning, leadership through service and inclusiveness.

Cherished values

To Nanette, these values are not just words. They literally shaped her extraordinary and inspirational life as a physician, educator, researcher, women’s pioneer and champion for society’s underrepresented and underprivileged people.

Indeed, when she became one of the first in her field to challenge the medical establishment’s long-held and fiercely defended assumption that women weren’t as vulnerable to heart disease as men, she had the courage of her convictions and the power of those values to rely upon. (Today we know, thanks to her, that heart disease is one of the leading causes of death among women.)

That spirit of doing what’s right in the face of resistance – of pushing the envelope with the goal of advancing humanity – was evident in our Founders, Nanette says. She knew them personally – such as founder Jeanette Lipka Furst, who Nanette recalls held teas for sisters, generously sharing with them her love of life and of Phi Sigma Sigma.

“All the Founders were role models to us,” Nanette says fondly. “They were pioneers for their time who, in their unusual wisdom, began to carve a role where women could and would lead in the volunteer sector of society, and even beyond.”

Defending higher standards

Not surprisingly, then, Nanette is troubled by distorted media portrayals of Greek students in the news and on increasingly popular television dramas, where young people often squander their potential through reckless behaviors, poor life choices and excessive partying.

That’s not what being a Greek or being a Phi Sigma Sigma is about, she says – noting that each of us, in becoming sisters, has pledged to defend higher standards and fulfill our potential.

“We were always the women leaders on campus, and the leaders in academia,” she recalls of her Phi Sigma Sigma years. Nanette herself maintained a 4.0 average at Hunter. Her younger sister, Marsha Kass Marks of Atlanta – a Phi Sig who also attended Hunter, joined Alpha Chapter and now lives in Atlanta – valued excellence as well, ultimately earning a masters degree at Yale.

“As Phi Sigma Sigma sisters, we worked hard for a higher quality of life for ourselves and others – in our work and in our service to the community,” Nanette says. “We still stand for that.”

Nanette certainly does, as even the briefest summary of her major accomplishments shows (see related links at the bottom of this page for more information):

  • Chief of Cardiology at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital – which historically has served people who don’t have access to healthcare, and where she still helps train future physicians.
  • Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Emory University School of Medicine, where she’s taught since 1959.
  • Founding influence behind the Go Red for Women campaign, co-sponsored by the American Heart Association (AHA) to promote heart disease awareness among women.
  • Co-editor of the definitive textbook “ Women & Heart Disease ,” now in its second edition, and author of more than 1,300 articles and book chapters.
  • Founder of the Society for Geriatric Cardiology (another underrepresented population in heart research), and editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Geriatric Cardiology.
  • President of Atlanta Hadassah, the Atlanta Bureau of Jewish Education and the Jewish Children’s Service.
  • First female president of the Georgia Heart Association.
  • Recipient of multiple professional accolades, including the Outstanding Professional Achievement Award from Hunter College; the AHA’s Physician of the Year AwardGold Heart Award; the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award of Emory University; the Evangeline Papageorge Alumni Teaching Award, for outstanding and dedicated teaching at the Emory University School of Medicine; and 2010 Georgia Woman of the Year. She’s also been listed in Best Doctors in America every year since 1994, and in 1976 was named one of Time magazine’s “Women of the Year.”

Lifetime achievement 

At age 78, what’s next for this Phi Sigma Sigma standout?

More research, more writing, more teaching – and, of course, spending time with her husband, Dr. Julius Wenger, a renowned gastroenterologist who just retired from Emory’s School of Medicine, as well as her three daughters (two are physicians, one is a history professor) and their families.

No matter how much we achieve in our lives, Phi Sigma Sigmas will always have important work to do, Nanette explains – a purpose greater than ourselves worth pursuing, perfectly expressed by a favorite quote of hers (from a colleague, Dr. John Stone):

“What I wish for you is that the horizon will always be before your eyes and that, as you advance, that horizon will always retreat.”

Read more about Dr. Nanette Kass Wenger:

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