Intended for healthcare professionals


Helen Ranney

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 12 May 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2533
  1. Geoff Watts

    One of the first to identify a genetic factor in sickle cell anaemia

    Helen Ranney’s career was shaped by her response to two different but closely linked challenges—one scientific and self imposed, and the other social, a consequence of her sex. The scientific challenge was to contribute to a better understanding of the nature and inheritance of sickle cell disease, which affects millions of people worldwide; the social challenge was to succeed in a medical and scientific environment where women were vastly under-represented but already constituting a presence seen by some diehards as a violation of the natural order. In both enterprises she was successful, and her landmark research showed sickle cell disease results from inherited defects in the structure of haemoglobin.

    Born on a dairy farm in New York state, she acquired the practical problem solving outlook of her father and combined it with her teacher mother’s veneration for learning. Although her initial intention had been to study law, she opted instead for medicine on the grounds that doctors also attempt to fix what they study. She applied to Columbia University, but was unsuccessful. Professor Kenneth Kaushansky, chair of the department of medicine in the University of California in San Diego (UCSD), suspects that her sex counted against her. Instead she took a job as a research technician. This turned out to be a period in which she learnt valuable lessons about science as an intellectual pursuit and as a task in which a facility for practical experiment pays dividends. She reapplied to Columbia, which this time accepted her. She became a haematologist and chose to join a research oriented department. If it was indeed sexual discrimination that had earlier impeded her progress, those who perpetrated it had inadvertently sowed the seeds of her later and highly successful career as a medical scientist.

    Haemoglobin C

    It was not long before she began to take a particular interest in sickle cell disease. “She went on to make some important observations on its inheritance,” says Professor Sir David Weatherall of Oxford’s Institute of Molecular Medicine. “She did some of the first work on the genetics of sickle cell, and on the second haemoglobin variant to be described, haemoglobin C.”

    Haemoglobin itself comprises four protein subunits: two of α globin and two of β globin. The make-up of the latter is controlled by the HBB gene, mutations of which produce abnormal versions of β globin. One of these mutations causes the production of the protein variant known as haemoglobin S (HbS). The consequence is sickle cell disease. When both the β globin subunits carry HbS variants, the result is sickle cell anaemia. Sickle cell disease was recognised to run in families, and, by the 1940s, it was known to be passed on as a Mendelian recessive condition. But that was about the extent of the understanding of its inheritance.

    A few years before Ranney began her own studies, Linus Pauling had shown that sickle cell and normal haemoglobins move at different rates in an electric field; in other words, that the sickle condition was caused by a protein abnormality. It was this finding that prompted his 1949 paper in Science titled “Sickle cell anaemia, a molecular disease” (1949;110:543-8). But his work was carried out using cumbersome equipment originally designed by the Swedish chemist Arne Tiselius. Conscious that the Tiselius machine was totally unsuited to a routine haematology laboratory, Ranney set out to devise something simpler. “Her method involved dripping the proteins in a buffer solution on to a piece of filter paper and then passing an electric current,” says Weatherall. “You could do it in any lab.”

    Ranney also worked on the genetics of haemoglobin C. In what Weatherall describes as one of her best studies she showed that sickle cell and haemoglobin C were alleles. “There were families where there were both sickle and haemoglobin C, and she demonstrated from the inheritance patterns that the abnormalities must be due to mutations at the same genetic locus.”

    In 1960 Ranney moved to the newly opened Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and later to the State University of New York at Buffalo. By this time the focus of her interest had begun to shift from research to the demands of managing and organising academic medicine. This reached its peak with her 1973 appointment to UCSD as chair of the department of medicine, the post now held by Kenneth Kaushansky. In getting this job, Kaushansky points out, she became the first woman to chair such a department in a US university. “One of her many firsts.”

    Ranney soon became known for her motivational skills. “She was able to push people beyond what they themselves thought they were capable of, whether in research or in education,” says Kaushansky. Weatherall endorses that view: “I did know some of her junior staff in San Diego, and she was obviously a great teacher and a good mentor.”

    Academic physicians

    Strategically, Kaushansky adds, Ranney had a distinct idea of the way that academic medicine should function, and she recruited staff accordingly. She was a great believer in the importance of academic physicians being able to work as good clinicians, good researchers, and good teachers. Her ideal was the individual who could function equally well as all three.

    “She was quite tough, but also had a good sense of humour and a warm side to her,” according to Weatherall. “She was extremely smart,” says Kaushansky. “She could certainly make an intellectual argument for doing what she thought should be done. But she was also a forceful personality with a strong will and a clever wit.”

    Helen Ranney maintained her interest in medicine into retirement. She became a consultant for a biotech company in San Diego and, until a couple of years ago, continued attending haematology lectures in her old San Diego department, and joining in weekly medical grand rounds. “Mentally she remained as sharp as ever,” says Kaushansky.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2533


    • Helen Margaret Ranney, haematologist (b 1920; q 1947, Columbia University, NY), died from pneumonia on 5 April 2010.

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