Obituary: Dr Helen Ranney

Haematologist whose pioneering research led to genetic breakthrough in sickle-cell disease

Dr Helen Ranney, Haematologist. Born: 12 April, 1920, in Summerhill, New York. Died: 5 April, 2010, in San Diego, California, aged 89

HAEMATOLOGIST Dr Helen Ranney's experiments in the 1950s elucidated the genetic basis of sickle cell disease, an inherited form of anaemia. Sickle cell disease, usually presenting in childhood, occurs more commonly in people (or their descendants) from parts of tropical and sub-tropical regions where malaria is or was common. It affects one in 500 African-Americans.

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Dr Ranney was a faculty member at the University of California in San Diego for more than 30 years and a former head of the department of medicine. She was the first woman at a major American medical school to hold that post. As a post-doctoral student in haematology more than 50 years ago, Dr Ranney developed a simple method of distinguishing normal haemoglobin, the iron-rich protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen, from the abnormal haemoglobin found in patients with sickle cell disease.

By comparing unaffected family members with relatives with the illness, Dr Ranney provided early evidence that inherited defects in the structure of haemoglobin were responsible for sickle cell disease.

Up to this point, scientists recognised that sickle cell disease ran in families, but the underlying mechanism of it was not well understood.

Dr Ranney's research also provided clinicians with a simple method of testing for the disease in newborns, who usually do not develop anaemia and other symptoms of the illness until they are five months old.

"It immediately gave us a way to diagnose sickle cell," said Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Diego. "The differences in haemoglobin were an important insight."

Helen Margaret Ranney was born on 12 April, 1920, in Summerhill, New York. Her father was a dairy farmer and her mother was a schoolteacher.

She entered Barnard College with plans to study law, but shifted her sights toward medicine, drawn by the notion that physicians can fix the problems they study. After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1941, she applied to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons but was rejected. She took a job as a laboratory technician, acquiring the skills she would later use in her research.

She reapplied to Columbia, was accepted and received her medical degree in 1947, one of five women in a class of 120 students. She remained at Columbia for post-graduate training and, during this time, conducted her groundbreaking sickle cell disease research.

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She went on to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, where she continued her haemoglobin research and became a professor in 1965. After a stint at the State University of New York, Buffalo, she moved to the University of California, San Diego, where she became chairwoman of its department of medicine in 1973. She was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences the same year.

Dr Ranney headed the department of medicine for 13 years. From 1986 to 1991, she was a distinguished physician of the Veterans Administration, the first woman to hold that post. For several years after that, she was a board member and an adviser to the Alliance Pharmaceutical Corporation, a biotechnology company in San Diego working on a blood substitute. At her death she was a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego.