After growing up on a South Alabama cattle farm in the 1940s and ’50s, Martha Pugh, MD, went on to have a 51-year career in a different male-dominated field: medicine.
Often one of few women in the building, whether at medical school or in hospitals, Dr. Pugh – now 82 and retired – found common ground with her male peers and went on to become one of the Texas Medical Association’s longest-serving members for 42 years.
“Every day,” she said of her career. “I loved every day.”
She received navigational guidance from women along the way as she ascended to the profession’s executive ranks.
One of her elementary school teachers encouraged her to consider college, citing her status as a National Merit Scholarship finalist. A college biology professor who oversaw the premed program provided a second nudge into a career in medicine.
With the support of her parents, Dr. Pugh drove to Birmingham with four of her male classmates to take the Medical College Admission Test. She was the only one to be accepted to medical school.
Dr. Pugh matriculated at the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham in 1961. She likes to say her father paid for her tuition with two bales of cotton a year. Dr. Pugh was one of six women in her 80-person class – and one of only three who graduated.
“I was fortunate not to have had some of the real negatives that some women have when they are in areas that are mainly men,” she said.
But medical school was not without challenges: There was no on-campus housing for female medical students, so Dr. Pugh and her five female classmates lived beneath a fraternity house for dental students.
“My father said that the hardest thing he ever did in his life was leave me in that space when he delivered me to medical school,” she said.
Dr. Pugh opted for the nascent physical medicine and rehabilitation program at the Baylor School of Medicine, where she was one of just three residents and the only woman. The specialty had grown in the aftermath of World War II and offered the variety she had craved during medical school, when she struggled to choose a specialty. Her patients’ conditions varied from sports injuries and immune disorders to polio and burn wounds.
After training, Dr. Pugh spent one year practicing at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Hospital in Houston before moving on to private practice and taking on the occasional hospital stint. But her career really took off in the mid-1980s.
Her husband, James Davis, worked in the steel industry, which suffered a deep depression around that time. The couple was unafraid to switch roles, with Dr. Pugh taking on more responsibility at work and Mr. Davis assuming more domestic duties.
Dr. Pugh became full-time medical director of her private practice. Over the course of her five-decade career, she cycled through nearly a dozen partners – all of them men – and saw their challenges to balance work and family mirrored her own.
“The one thing that I have observed over the years is a lot of my male colleagues have struggled with exactly the same issues,” she said.
She was also active in organized medicine, including TMA, the Texas Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Society, and the Harris County Medical Society. Meanwhile, Mr. Davis embarked on a 20-year-long stint as a beloved member of the TMA Alliance, an organization of about 9,000 TMA-member spouses that sponsors projects furthering TMA’s public health goals.
The division of labor also allowed Dr. Pugh to flourish in her dual roles of physician and parent and be role model for her own family. Her older daughter, niece, and two nephews have gone on to become physicians. Her younger daughter and son are engineers.
“That suggests to me that I was pretty successful with my child care as well as my career.”
Tex Med. 2021;117(12):48
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