Women’s health pioneer and ‘Mother’ of hospice is honored in La Jolla

By Ashley Mackin

Dr. Doris Howell, founder of the Howell Foundation and the creator of hospice care in San Diego, was honored at a luncheon at the La Jolla Country Club, Nov. 6, in advance of her 90th birthday on Dec. 2.

The celebration was filled with speakers from the medical community who chronicled her accomplishments and contributions to women’s health.

Dr. Howell received an award from every place she studied or worked. When it came to attending medical school, she chose McGill University in Montreal, Canada because “they were enlightened” and admitted women to the school of medicine when many universities in the United States would not. On Oct. 16, Dr. Howell received a Lifetime Achievement Award from McGill University’s Medical School.

For her residency in pediatrics, she returned to the United States and attended Duke University and worked at the Boston Children’s Hospital. In 1970, Howell was the first woman to receive the Duke Distinguished Medical Alumnus Award.

UC San Diego professor David Bailey, M.D. told the gathering that in 1974, Howell was recruited to UCSD — for which, he said, “thank goodness” — in the hematology oncology division within the pediatrics department. From there, Dr. Howell was named the first female chair of the Department of Community and Family Medicine.

“This was a tall order,” he said. “But leadership such as Dr. Howell’s knows no bounds.”

Soon afterward, she determined that the most needed service in San Diego was the establishment of a hospice system. She founded the San Diego Hospice & Institute of Palliative Medicine in 1977.

“She earned the title ‘Mother of Hospice,’ ” Bailey said, “And I don’t think anyone thinks of hospice without immediately thinking of Doris Howell.” She also brought about the first non-profit hospice in San Diego.

However, she might be best known for the establishment of the Howell Foundation, whose mission is simple: “Keeping the women we love healthy.”

Funds raised through foundation events help pay for undergraduate studies, research, and education for women in the field of family health.

The foundation’s work is just one of the many reasons the Office of Interim Mayor Todd Gloria declared Dec. 2 “Doris Howell Day” in San Diego. Representing Gloria, Community Liaison Lena Lewis said, “Dr. Howell is a local medical leader who has become a role model and mentor, thanks to her combination of medical skills and kindness.” She added that Dr. Howell has made “a lasting impact on society and the overall well-being of women.”

To all this, Howell said, “I cannot thank you enough times. I’m grateful I don’t wear mascara, as it would be running down my face. To have all of you recognize that I tried to give contributions to this world and to the things I love — children and women, and men occasionally — means more to me than anything. I think my heart will burst.”

Speaking to the

La Jolla Light

, after the luncheon, Dr. Howell explained that joining the medical field — even at a time when women were not encouraged to do so — was always the plan.

“As a child I dissected everything,” she said. “When I went to grade school, I was the one who stepped up (to dissect) a mouse, then a cat. I just thought it was fascinating to find out what is inside of us.” When she needed surgery as a child, she got her first introduction to the workings of a hospital. She said that because the nurses took such wonderful care of her, she wanted to be a nurse.

“I thought they are the most wonderful people. Nurses do everything for you and care about you,” she said. However, her grandmother had a different view of nurses.

“Grandma said, ‘They do scutwork!’ and I thought, what is scutwork? My grandmother told me ‘Nurses have to clean up the mess (from people and in operating rooms) and we worked hard in our family to get an education, so we are not going to do scutwork. You can be a teacher or a librarian, but you cannot be a nurse.’ ”

Still, the passion was there, and Dr. Howell said she knew she wanted to pursue medicine. After observing that nurses always assisted doctors and never did anything independently, she decided she wanted to be a doctor.

Now it was her stepfather who did not support her plan.

“He told me that as a doctor, one day I could replace a man, and that wouldn’t be fair because a man supports a family,” she recalled. “I said, ‘What if I got married and my husband died?’ ”

He proceeded to ask if she wanted to get married and have children one day, telling her she “wasn’t exactly unattractive.”

“I replied, ‘Who said (as a doctor) I can’t get married?’ ” she laughed.

Though she never did marry, Dr. Howell had a thriving medical career and discovered the importance of educating women about their health issues.

“I realized how little women knew about themselves, when you would ask a woman where she got her medical advice for herself and her family, she would say, ‘I ask my husband,’ ” she said. “Well, how does he know about what’s best for you?”

Combining the two loves became her lifelong mission, and she isn’t through. The next Howell Foundation event will focus on an integrative approach to stress management, “Reducing Stress and Increasing Happiness,” in spring 2014. Find more information at