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News from the American College of Surgeons
For Immediate Release

Surgeon and reproductive scientist Patricia Kilroy Donahoe, MD, FACS, named recipient of 2021 Jacobson Innovation Award

Leading expert in reproductive developmental biology and oncology is honored for pioneering ongoing research on Mullerian Inhibiting Substance (MIS) and on lung development

CHICAGO (June 11, 2021; 10 a.m. CDT): One of the world’s most influential reproductive scientists, Patricia Kilroy Donahoe, MD, FACS, will receive the 2021 Jacobson Innovation Award of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) during a virtual event to be held in her honor this evening. Dr. Donahoe, a general and pediatric surgeon, is director of pediatric surgical research laboratories and chief emerita of pediatric surgical services at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Boston.

The prestigious Jacobson Innovation Award honors living surgeons who have been innovators of a new development or technique in any field of surgery. The award is made possible through a gift from Julius H. Jacobson II, MD, FACS, and his wife, Joan. Dr. Jacobson is a general vascular surgeon known for his pioneering work in microsurgery.

Dr. Donahoe is the award’s 27th recipient. She is the leading expert in reproductive developmental biology and oncology. Her extraordinary career encompasses both pediatric surgery and life-long innovative research. Research has always been part of Dr. Donahoe’s medical education and professional life. She performed research during medical school and throughout her surgical fellowship training in the laboratory of Judah Folkman, MD, FACS, at Boston Children's Hospital, as well as with W. Hardy Hendren III, MD, FACS, at MGH. Both Drs. Folkman and Hendren are previous recipients of the Jacobson Innovation Award for their work.

Patricia Kilroy Donahoe, MD, FACS

Patricia Kilroy Donahoe, MD, FACS
Image courtesy: Massachusetts General Hospital

Dr. Donahoe then completed registrar and senior registrar posts at Adler Hey Children's Hospital, Liverpool, England, under Drs. Peter Rickham and Herbert Johnston. In 1973, she joined the MGH department of surgery as the first female surgeon on staff and was also asked to develop MGH's pediatric surgical research program, where she combined her passions of surgery and research.

Pioneering research on MIS

During her years as a junior faculty member at MGH, Dr. Donahoe began her pioneering ongoing research on Mullerian Inhibiting Substance (MIS), which has changed the way clinicians understand reproduction. MIS has clinical applications in the regulation of normal reproduction and a potential role in the control of ovarian and other reproductive tumors.

Dr. Donahoe’s initial research efforts may have been focused on ovarian cancer and treatments options. However, early on her pediatric surgical research led a molecular understanding of the biology behind the development of reproductive structures and function. MIS is a gonadal hormone that causes regression of the Mullerian ducts, the anlagen of the female internal reproductive structures, during male embryogenesis.

In non-clinical terms, “Dr. Donahoe discovered one of the key molecular codes for what makes a boy a boy, and a girl a girl,” explained H. Randolph Bailey, MD, FACS, ACS First Vice President, who will moderate the award ceremony this evening.

This research has been key to a more sophisticated understanding of the complications of disorders of sexual differentiation. Disorders/Differences of Sex Development (DSDs) are rare congenital conditions that are seen when a baby is born with variations in either or both male and female reproductive organs, making it difficult to distinguish their naturally intended gender. These discoveries opened up a new area of pediatric surgery. Thousands of children have benefitted from her research into the causes of these abnormalities.

Dr. Donahoe’s research has also contributed to the understanding of the molecular and genetic causes of birth defects, particularly congenital diaphragmatic hernia, which adversely affects lung development. Her interest in lung development led her to devise a new technique for the repair of laryngotracheal esophageal clefts where there were no previous survivors.

A career of numerous honors and awards

Dr. Donahoe is the recipient of consecutive National Institute of Health (NIH) grants, which covered the years, unabated, from 1976 to the present. She is the author of more than 300 peer-reviewed publications and has trained and mentored more than 100 fellows in her research laboratory. She holds multiple patents of composition and use of MIS. A Fellow of both the American College of Surgeons (FACS) and the National Academy of Medicine, she is also presently one of only two surgeons honored as a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences since 1999. Her research on MIS as a potential anti-cancer agent and in enhancing fertility garnered her the Pincus Medal by the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Worcester Foundation. She has also been awarded the American Surgical Association's Flance-Karl Award and the Gold Medallion for Research, the Fred Conrad Kock Award of the Endocrine Society, and the William Ladd Medal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is a past-president of the American Pediatric Surgical Association, The Boston Surgical Society, and the New England Surgical Society.

A mentor to surgeon-scientists and endocrinologists

Dr. Donahoe has led a remarkable career both as a pediatric surgeon and as a world-class investigator. Not only has she contributed enormously to women’s health and reproductive endocrinology, but has also expanded the reach of her work by training and mentoring an entire generation of young surgeons and endocrinologists, including both MDs and PhDs, in developmental biology, genetics, and genomics.

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About Patricia Kilroy Donahoe, MD, FACS
Dr. Donahoe is a board certified general and pediatric surgeon from Boston. Born in 1937, she grew up in Brookline and Braintree, Mass. She completed her undergraduate studies at Boston University before being accepted into medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City. Of 120 students in her medical school class, only 10 were woman. She excelled in medical school, earning a medical doctorate (MD) in 1964. Dr. Donahoe performed cardiac surgery research from day one of medical school, culminating in her research team winning the Borden Undergraduate Award at graduation.

While in medical school, she married her childhood sweetheart, Jack Donahoe, who was pursuing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree at Columbia University. While both balanced their studies, she gave birth to two children, Shauna and Tara. Upon completion of Jack’s MBA degree, he was offered a prime opportunity to join the Ford Motor Corporation in Boston. Graduating medical school in 1964, Dr. Donahoe only applied for surgical residency programs in Boston and was accepted into the Tufts University New England Medical Center program. She subsequently trained under Judah Folkman, MD, FACS, during which time she had her third child, John II (“Jake”). This seminal training was followed by a clinical and research fellowship with W. Hardy Hendren III, MD, FACS. 

Dr. Donahoe further specialized her studies in newborn surgery under the direction of Dr. Peter P. Rickham at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, England. Drs. Rickham and Isabella Forshall had founded the first neonatal surgical unit in the world, which later became the benchmark for similar units across the globe. This unit’s work at Alder Hey immediately brought significant improvements in the survival of newborn infants undergoing surgery.

Following her success at Alder Hey, Dr. Donahoe returned to Boston in 1973, joining the staff of MGH as its first female clinical surgeon in the surgical unit of Dr. Hendren, where she also began development of their research team. She has devoted her entire professional life to MGH with astonishing results. The American College of Surgeons recognized her as an Icon in Surgery in 2019 (view video here).

Previous Jacobson Innovation Award recipients

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About the American College of Surgeons

The American College of Surgeons is a scientific and educational organization of surgeons that was founded in 1913 to raise the standards of surgical practice and improve the quality of care for all surgical patients. The College is dedicated to the ethical and competent practice of surgery. Its achievements have significantly influenced the course of scientific surgery in America and have established it as an important advocate for all surgical patients. The College has more than 82,000 members and is the largest organization of surgeons in the world. For more information, visit www.facs.org.

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