Pioneer In Women’s Healthcare to Be Honored

When Patricia A. Robertson ’72 was a high school senior in Houston, Texas, she was the only girl in her physics class. But when she got to Mount Holyoke, “Women were taken seriously in the sciences, and I didn’t feel out of place,” she says.

So began her journey toward becoming what she is today: a pioneering doctor in the field of lesbian healthcare.

Robertson will be recognized for her impact when she receives an honorary degree at commencement on May 18.

“I’m thrilled,” she says. “It validates my work that my college recognizes how important my work is, and it inspires me to expand the scope of my work.”

Robertson, who majored in biology at Mount Holyoke, is a physician and professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Services at the University of California at San Francisco. An important part of her work centers on providing better healthcare for lesbians, who, she says, have been overlooked and even shunned by medical professionals and thus suffer from delayed diagnosis.

Research that she spearheaded to explore how lesbians’ health differs from straight women’s health, and programs she started to train healthcare professionals, mean that more lesbian patients are now treated more respectfully and medically appropriately. However, she says, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Robertson is the second of five children whose parents wanted them to gain a wide perspective by attending a college outside their home state. Her guidance counselor, an MHC alumna, was convinced that Robertson belonged at Mount Holyoke.

Robertson found kindred spirits on the Debate Team—“a group of like-minded women who enjoyed controversy.” And she became involved in the Student Government Association and campus activism at a time of big changes in the country and at Mount Holyoke. “Mount Holyoke prepared me for medical school and for being a feminist and for being someone who likes to be involved in change,” she says.

She attended medical school at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Later, while a resident in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), she started her work in lesbian healthcare, publishing the first study of sexually transmitted diseases in lesbians. That led to the establishment of a clinic for low-income lesbians and other women in San Francisco. In 2010, she coedited the first textbook on lesbian health: Lesbian Health 101: A Clinician’s Guide.

Her leadership roles have included codirector of the Lesbian Health and Research Center at UCSF, cofounder of the UCSF/Kaiser Undergraduate Research Internship (a program for pre-meds from underrepresented minority groups), cochair of the Student Mental Health Oversight Committee for the ten University of California campuses, and holder of her department’s first endowed chair in education.

—By Ronni Gordon