Always ahead of her time

Summer 2013

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Betty Lou Conrad, top as an OU student in the 1940s, and below in the 1990s, dedicated her life to making the city of Tulsa a healthier place to live.

Betty Lou Conrad, top as an OU student in the 1940s, and below in the 1990s, dedicated her life to making the city of Tulsa a healthier place to live.

With her prim lace collar and sweet smile, Dr. Betty Lou Conrad could have been mistaken for someone’s grandmother, but anyone who underestimated the good doctor soon found nerves of steel beneath the silver curls. A 1944 graduate of the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, Conrad spent her life in the arena of public health, fighting communicable diseases and the ignorance that helps them spread. Before she died in November 2009, Conrad set up a $110,000 scholarship endowment at the OU Foundation to help OU-Tulsa medical students continue that fight.

Born in Texas in 1920, Conrad was seven years old before her parents settled in one place long enough for her to attend school. When she finally began her formal education in Bristow, Oklahoma, she completed the first, second and third grades in nine months. The next fall, she was placed in fifth grade, a good two years ahead of her peers.

After attending Bristow Community College and completing her bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma A&M, she set her sights on becoming a doctor even though advisers tried to steer her into more “suitable” professions.

“I didn’t care what they said, I told myself that I’m going to medical school,” she would later recall to friend and colleague Dr. George Prothro. She applied and was accepted to the OU School of Medicine in 1941. Despite the dire warnings, the only problem Conrad had at OU was lifting the heavy cadavers out of tubs. “I was lucky to have the boys to help with that,” she said.

Conrad was one of the first female interns at a large metropolitan hospital in Detroit and completed her residency in internal medicine in New York. When she returned to Oklahoma to look for work, she was shocked to learn from a routine physical that she had tuberculosis. The care and treatment she received during this time would help determine her life’s work.

In 1966, she became director of contagious disease control for the Tulsa City-County Health Department. Throughout her career, Conrad used her intelligence backed by sheer stubbornness to slow the spread of public enemies from tuberculosis to AIDS.

Dr. Les Wall, a retired professor and chairman in the Department of Family Practice at OU-Tulsa, said Conrad became an enduring and very prominent figure in public health. “Dr. Conrad was an absolute bulldog making sure people got the follow up they needed,” said Wall.

There is a story about the doctor confronting a man twice her size, who had tested positive for TB. He told her bluntly that he was not going to the hospital for treatment. She looked him right in the eye and said, “You are going, and I’ve got two deputy sheriffs that will see to it.” Not only did the man go, he was also completely cured and came back later to thank her.

In the early ’80s a new and deadly predator began stalking the community. “We didn’t even know what AIDS was,” said Dr. Wall. “We didn’t even know it was a virus. We only knew that people were dying, and their immune system was crashing, but we didn’t know why.

“Dr. Conrad was one of the early pioneers in our area in AIDS education. She protected the community by educating patients about transmission and making sure they got follow-up care. She was really something.”

Colleagues say she was extremely bright and extremely dedicated. “She loved the community and did everything she could to protect it,” said Wall. “She taught students at the medical school at OU-Tulsa, as well as the doctors in the community.”

After retirement, she continued to work for the city she loved by volunteering at the Tulsa free clinics. During her career, she received numerous awards, including the 1989 Doctor of the Year and the 1990 Pinnacle Award given by the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.