This week we recognize Dr. Sofia Ionescu, the first female neurosurgeon in the world
Gretchen Koller, Mani Ratnesh Sandhu, Nathan Shlobin, Alexander Kelly
Born in a small northern Romanian town in 1920, Sofia Ionescu chose to follow in the footsteps of the other physicians in her family, ultimately pursuing a career in medicine and studying in the Faculty of Human Medicine of Bucharest at the young age of 19. She spent her early years in medicine in the military service treating injured Soviet soldiers during the Second World War. Under the mentorship of Professor Dimitrie Bagdasar, founder of the Romanian Neurosurgical School, she spent the summer of 1943 interning in the neurosurgical unit of the Central Hospital for Mental, Nervous, and Endocrine diseases, where Sofia outshone her peers. Indeed, Bagdasar described her as a “diamond in the rough” after she independently operated on and saved the life of an 8-year-old boy who had sustained an epidural hematoma.
Soon after, Sofia became the first female to join Bagdasar’s neurosurgery “gold team” in Bucharest. After graduating in 1945, she married a fellow neurosurgeon, Ionel Ionescu. The couple built a life together in the hospital, even as Sofia continued to operate through both of her pregnancies with barely any maternity leave. Her devotion and self-sacrifice did not go unseen, as she was soon promoted to Chief of Cerebral Tumor Development where she spent almost 25 years leading the department before becoming Chief of the Spinal Pathology Department. Despite being respected for her innovation, commitment to teaching, and willingness to take necessary risks, Dr. Sofia Ionescu was still subject to criticism from her male peers. At one point, she was asked to perform the “gouge forceps test” to ‘prove’ she was a competent neurosurgeon. Onlookers were astounded by her incredible precision, steady hands, and the callosity present on her ring finger. Shortly after this encounter, stories of her achievements and success traveled worldwide.
While juggling multiple roles as a brain and spine surgeon, Dr. Ionescu also dedicated significant amounts of time to scholarly activities, and published in national and international journals throughout her career and long after her official retirement. The prestige surrounding her career is evidenced by the numerous titles, diplomas, and other honors presented to her throughout her life and posthumously. The World Health Organization has even recognized her as one of the top 65 heroic doctors who have dedicated their lives to the profession. Without a doubt, Dr. Sofia Ionescu is a giant of medicine who paved the way for women in the field of neurosurgery.