October 2023

A Champion for Women's Heart Health

Nanette Wenger upended dogma by proving women are at risk for cardiovascular disease

The Heart Issue

  • by Catherine Caruso
  • 2 min read

Nanette Wenger

Nanette Wenger

On her first day of medical school, Nanette Wenger, MD ’54, remembers learning that “the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.” More than seven decades later, that tenet remains central to her medical practice.

During her career as a cardiologist, spent mostly at Emory University School of Medicine and Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Wenger has devoted herself to caring for patients, conducting research, teaching, and mentoring younger physicians — all while doggedly working to bring much-needed attention to cardiac disease in women.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned is if I believe what I am doing is necessary and important, I should persist and endeavor to enroll others in my vision,” Wenger says.

When Wenger attended HMS, women were accepted only on a trial basis; there were a mere ten women in her class. Yet, she looks back on her experience fondly, recalling strong camaraderie with classmates and mentors.

Wenger found standout mentors in cardiologists Herrman Blumgart, Class of 1921, and Louis Wolff, Class of 1922, at what was then Beth Israel Hospital. Their early mentorship motivated her to become a mentor herself: Wenger estimates that she has trained thousands of young physicians, including, in several instances, three generations within one family.

After completing her cardiology training at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, Wenger joined the faculty at Emory and Grady. There, she noticed that many women were coming into the hospital with chest pain and heart attacks. Yet she’d been taught that heart disease was a man’s disease.

A literature search turned up nothing about heart disease in women, so Wenger began approaching national cardiology organizations. She was initially met with resistance, along with insistence that women don’t have heart disease. But, she persisted. Eventually what is now the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute agreed to organize a conference on the topic, which she co-chaired.

She co-authored a seminal paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that summarized recommendations from the conference, including how to treat women with heart disease, and what research on the topic was needed. “The emerging information and knowledge deficits interested clinicians and scientists in the subject,” she says.

Wenger spent decades studying and raising awareness about heart disease in women — work that has elevated her to rock star status in the cardiology community and culminated in more than 1,700 scientific publications, as well as several awards named in her honor. Yet, “we’ve just begun the journey," she cautions, noting that women who have heart disease still don't fare as well as men.

Fortunately, Wenger shows no sign of slowing down; she continues to see patients, carry out research, and train young physicians with the same dedication and enthusiasm she had during her first years in medicine.

“Perhaps the most the important things I’ve done are to ask questions and to continue to translate research into equitable cardiovascular care,” she says.

Catherine Caruso is a science writer in the HMS Office of Communications and External Relations.

Image: Gregory Miller