Dean History: Dr. Mary Underrinner- Dean - WI

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Dean Medical Group's History

A Tour Through The Decades

Dean History: Dr. Mary Underrinner

Dr. Mary UnderrinerDr. M. Mary Underriner: Dean Clinic’s First Female Physician

Dr. M. Mary’s Underriner’s road to becoming the first female physician employed by Dean Clinic was not an easy one. When she enrolled in medical school at the University of Iowa in 1948, she faced a daunting task. The medical school had accepted ninety first-year students and had a quota mandating that only sixty would be allowed to graduate four years later. There was also a quota limiting the number of women who would be accepted to the medical school to four, and only two would be permitted to graduate. Although the odds were against her, the future Dr. Underriner rose to the challenge and graduated in 1952.

Residency at St. Mary’s

Underriner faced her next set of challenges when she sought a residency. She applied to several programs, including the Mayo Clinic and the University of Wisconsin. She took part in eight hours of interviews and meetings at Mayo, only to be told at the end of the day that they liked her and her strong resume but Mayo did not accept women to their program. She wondered why they had wasted her time and theirs.

When she interviewed at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, however, Underriner was welcomed with open arms. St. Mary’s nuns knew from their own experiences of managing a hospital for forty years how capable women were.

A hectic pace

Underriner’s internship prepared her well to become a general practitioner. One of the expectations for St. Mary’s interns was that they would be the hospital’s doctor during the weekend. This meant that from 5:00 p.m. on Friday through 8:00 a.m on Monday, Underriner or the other interns would be the primary doctor in the hospital.

Although some of the regular doctors would pass through the hospital doing rounds with their patients, the interns essentially were “running the show.” They dealt with the emergency cases, delivered babies, managed polio patients in iron lungs and, basically, had to handle all of the inpatients.

Dr. Underriner must have greatly impressed the Dean physicians who practiced at St. Mary’s during those years. Upon completion of her residency, she was hired by Dean Clinic as a general practitioner, thus becoming Dean’s first female physician.

Finding a home at Dean

Dr. Underriner began working for Dean in August, 1953. This was her dream job because of the enormous respect she held for the other Dean physicians she had come to know during her residency. She saw Dean’s physicians as pioneers. They were a group of doctors who had formed a multispecialty clinic with an emphasis on quality long before this was common.

Soon she added a new specialty to the Dean talent pool. Shortly after she began working for Dean, Dr. Underriner took a brief working sabbatical and went to the Mendota State Hospital in Madison to gain experience in treating psychiatric patients. She had realized at Dean Clinic that her patients frequently discussed their nonmedical issues, and often what they said was very relevant for their treatment.

Long before taking a holistic approach to medical treatment was in vogue, she recognized that addressing a patient’s psychological well-being could positively impact his/her medical treatment. So, she went to Mendota to receive training in psychiatry. When she returned to Dean after seven months of training, she resumed her general practice and specialized in working with patients with psychiatric issues.

Moving on

Dr. Underriner left the Dean Clinic in 1955 when she married Dr. Frederick Rich.  She had loved working at the Dean Clinic. She said she was treated like a colleague and not differently because she was a woman. She often socialized with the other physicians, including one notable occasion when she and five other physicians went out for dinner at one restaurant and then adjourned for dessert to another restaurant, where each had a slice of a new delicacy that had recently been introduced in Madison ‑ pizza!

After leaving Dean, Dr. Underriner devoted herself to helping her husband in his practice and raising their four children. She maintained her medical license and kept abreast of the revolutionary changes in psychiatric treatment, including the dramatic increase of psychiatric drugs. While few kinds were employed in the 1950s, hundreds of drugs where used in treatment by the 1970s. In 1977, when her youngest child, Mark, was in high school, she resumed practicing medicine as a psychiatrist and general practitioner at Mendota State Hospital.

Taking a holistic approach

As an undergraduate, Dr. Underrinner had majored in philosophy and nutrition. As a physician, she had a strong philosophy that guided her practice. She believed, first and foremost, that physicians should listen to their patients. They should conduct a thorough physical examination and not simply rely on the medical labs or imaging.

She also firmly believed that a physician should listen to the nurses because they would notice subtle changes in patients as a result of spending a lot of time with those patients. Dr. Underrinner believed in teamwork among the medical staff and in taking a holistic approach to understanding the problems of patients including what was going on in their bodies as well as their minds.

Her legacy continues

In 1992, Dr. Underriner’s son, Mark Rich, began practicing medicine in Madison as a radiologist with Madison Radiologists. As of 2014, Dr. Rich works at the Dean Clinic and St. Mary’s Hospital and considers himself a “Dean’s/St. Mary’s physician.” He said his mother was as pleased as he was that he could work for such exemplary organizations as Dean and St. Mary’s.

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