Of all the pioneers who helped shape the field of genetic counseling, it is likely that no one was more influential than Joan H. Marks, who died on September 14th at the age of 91. In 1972, when Joan took over the 3-year-old program at Sarah Lawrence College that now bears her name, there was no accrediting body, no national society, no Journal of Genetic Counseling. She stayed for 26 years, a dominating and charismatic presence, often intimidating, often demanding – a fierce advocate for both genetic counselors and their patients, who she insisted deserved more than a lecture on chromosomes and recessive inheritance.
When your friends and relatives ask you, as they still do, ‘what is a genetic counselor?’ the answer you provide, whether you know it or not, is an echo of Joan’s vision, distilled in a generation of students who went on to define their roles in workplaces across the country, to found NSGC and ABGC, and to serve as teachers and program directors in their turn, passing along the ethos that remains integral to the field.
I met Joan when I interviewed at Sarah Lawrence in 1999, when she was very much the eminence grise. “I imagine you’ll get in,” she said to me, looking over my transcript with a practiced air, and I was thrilled – an excitement that was immediately tempered when she mentioned that she would not be sticking around to educate this new class of genetic counselors. As a charter member of the post-Joan-Marks generation of Sarah Lawrence alums, I can attest to the lingering effects of her legacy.
Still, devoted former students have told me over the years that I was unlucky not to have known her better. No doubt this is true (and no offense to Caroline Lieber, who inherited the mantle at Sarah Lawrence and was a great program director in her own right). So today I would like to invite all of you who knew Joan Marks as a student or a colleague or a friend to treat this post as a sort of an invitation and add your reminiscences here.
First up, a lovely tribute form Caroline Lieber herself, who talks about her experience filling some very big shoes in the world of genetic counseling. I hope that many others will fill the comments.
Joan Marks: One of a kind
Caroline Lieber, MS, CGC Director Emeritus, Sarah Lawrence College Joan H Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics
I met Joan Marks in February 1978. My then-boyfriend and I flew to New York and then took the train to the Sarah Lawrence campus, two California kids in New York for the first time. He waited outside of Morrill House while she and I “talked.” It felt more like she talked and I listened. After the interview I said, “I am not sure that went so well….”
But when I called my parents from South America that July to check-in, my father excitedly said, “You got accepted at Sarah Lawrence!” My boyfriend and I packed our meager belongings and headed east. Two California kids in New York for the second time. We arrived two weeks before classes were scheduled to start. I was going to be a genetic counselor!
Having been undergraduate genetics major, I was comfortable in the science courses. The psychology courses were a different story. As our instructor for “Issues in Genetic Counseling,” Joan had us read broadly about ethical concerns, the depth of emotional responses to genetic conditions in families, and articles to help identify counseling techniques and how to use them. She commented in detail on each paper we wrote. In one paper I found recently, she pointed out some inconsistencies in my thinking. She further remarked, “But what’s good is that you see yourself as a counselor and you see how tough it can be. I’d like you to reread what you’ve written carefully and try to be objective-aren’t you inserting some biases here and there?” Her critique was not always welcome, but she always made me reflect on each point she made, and to look at it from another view. I learned to be more empathic in a tough-love way. I am proud of the genetic counselor I became under her direction.
Fast forward to 1998. I discovered that Joan was planning to retire from Sarah Lawrence. I applied for the director position, and went through rigorous interviews. I recall the pointed questions, some designed to make the interviewee a bit uncomfortable, as a means of gauging responses to tough situations. Even though she wasn’t in the room, it was clear that Joan was part of the process. Fortunately for me, I was selected.
Following in Joan’s footsteps was daunting. Those early months felt exciting and overwhelming as I learned a whole new landscape. Not surprisingly, Joan had very definitive ideas about the future of the program and often wanted to share her thoughts. As my advisor and mentor, I made a point of responding to her calls and emails, listening to her guidance and counsel. As it was when I was a student, I was not always in sync with her thoughts, but I learned to incorporate many of her suggestions. As I gained confidence in my role, I learned to trust my instincts and experiences to find my own personality in the position. When in time, Joan told me that I was doing a good job, letting me know that she approved of my leadership, it meant a great deal to me.
During my tenure as program director, our relationship grew on many levels. Joan and I grew together professionally as we worked on several commemorative events. When the program was renamed in Joan’s honor, it was a proud day for the college and the Joan H Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics. After I moved into New York City, we grew closer personally, sharing life outside of the program. We met for lunch and talked about some of her other interests, including art and gardening. I got to know her softer side.
Joan Marks was the most committed and passionate advocate for the genetic counseling field that I have ever known. As Laura Hercher said, “I doubt any other single individual did as much to shape the field.” She put the profession on the map with style, charm, directness and savvy. It was my privilege to be her student and mentee. It was my pleasure to be her friend.