As a young physician, Dr. Irené Ferrer was the first woman to serve as chief resident at Bellevue Hospital, where she was given a prestigious opportunity: to work with a leading team of cardiologists who were developing the cardiac catheter. Dr. Ferrer played a vital role in the Nobel prize-winning project, which was also an important step in the development of open-heart surgery.
M. Irené Ferrer graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1937. She received her M.D. from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1941, and completed her internship at Columbia University's Bellevue Hospital in 1943. From 1943 to 1944 she was the first woman Chief Resident in Medicine at Bellevue, where she had the opportunity to work with a leading team of cardiologists, opportunities unlikely to have been given to a woman physician if it hadn't been for the absence of male candidates during World War II. Dr. Andre Cournand and Dr. Dickinson Richards had been working together since the early 1930s, studying ways to measure the output of the heart, and they asked Dr. Ferrer to help them evaluate a catheter device they were working on. Together, the team developed and tested the cardiac catheter which won Cournard and Richards the Nobel Prize in 1956.
After two years as an assistant in medicine and a fellow in therapeutics at New York University College of Medicine, Dr. Ferrer returned to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1946. She has stayed there for the rest of her career, first appointed assistant in medicine, then rising through the ranks of instructor and associate to assistant professor of clinical medicine in 1951. She was made full professor in 1967.
Throughout this period, Dr. Ferrer also held hospital appointments at Bellevue Hospital, Presbyterian Hospital, and the Roosevelt Hospital. From 1947 to 1970, she was also assistant attending physician and cardiologist at French Hospital. In 1953, Dr. Ferrer was named director of the Electrocardiagraphics Department at Doctors Hospital, a position she held for thirty-three years. From 1956 to 1986 she was also director of the Electrocardiagraphic Laboratory at Presbyterian Hopsital. She has served as an honorary consultant at Presbyterian and St. Luke's-Roosevelt since 1986 and is professor emeritus of clinical medicine at Columbia University.
In the late 1950s Dr. Ferrer became a personal and professional mentor to Marianne J. Legato, a young student who had been forced to drop out of medical school after her father had withdrawn his support for her choice of a career. Dr. M. Irené Ferrer and her brother, Dr. Jose Ferrer (a surgeon at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons), provided instrumental support to get Legato back into medical school and build her career. Dr. M. Irené Ferrer even visited the dean of New York University to persuade him to allow Legato to return to school and personally paid for her tuition. Dr. Legato is now the founder and director of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University and a leading expert on women and heart disease. She describes Ferrer's approach to medicine as a "combination of intellectual brilliance and real love of the patient...a winning combination for those of us who were lucky enough to be her students."
Dr. Ferrer was a member of the board of directors of the New York Heart Association and served on the editorial boards of Circulation, American Heart Journal, and Chest. She was editor-in-chief of Current Cardiology in 1977 and of the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association from 1977 to 1981.
Dr. M. Irené Ferrer received the College of Physicians and Surgeons Distinguished Service Award in 1989 and their Alumni Association Gold Medal for distinguished academic accomplishment in medicine in 1993. Special among her many honors is the M. Irené Ferrer Professorship in Gender-specific Medicine at Columbia University, for which the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine, founded and directed by Dr. Marianne Legato, is raising funds.