Rewriting the Script

Pioneering medical geneticist, Pauline Brenholz, MD ’73, has taken fate into her own hands

Arriving in the United States from Poland in 1965, Pauline Brenholz was told she would have to start medical school all over again – after getting an American college degree.

Pauline Brenholz
Pauline Brenholz, MD ’73

So, Pauline Brenholz earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry while working in a hospital lab. Yet, she faced an uphill battle as Einstein considered her application.

“To prove myself, I took an elective course in neurochemistry for first-year students,” says Dr. Brenholz. Despite her good evaluation, some on the admission committee were not convinced they should admit her.

She recalls their hesitation to “waste a space” by not admitting an “American boy,” so she offered to start in her second year. And they agreed.

A refusal to bow to the seemingly inevitable has been the leitmotif of Dr. Brenholz’s life and, quite literally, the focus of her career. The child of Holocaust survivors, she has time and again faced down bias, whether anti-Semitism in Poland, as an immigrant in the US Mid-West, or as a woman in science and medicine. Despite and perhaps because of these obstacles, she became the nation’s first medical geneticist in private practice – a pioneer in a field that, by definition, challenges the notion that our fate is written in our genes. She has since worked in leading hospitals and consulted for state governments, corporations, and in legal cases.

“I’ve had to fight throughout my whole professional life, but it’s taught me that if you want something really badly and work hard for it, there’s a good chance you’ll achieve it,” says Dr. Brenholz.

Dr. Brenholz initially planned on being a pediatrician, although an experience on a case in the pediatric ICU during her second year in pediatric residency at Montefiore Hospital, opened her eyes to the effects of and treatments for genetic conditions. “I decided then, ‘This is what I want to do,’” she says.

Her timing was good. Scientists had recently introduced chromosomal banding, a staining technique that would enable the identification of each human chromosome. After a genetic fellowship at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Dr. Brenholz began in the newly established clinical genetic unit at Westchester County Medical Center. She loved the work, but eventually tired of “not having a voice” in a male-dominated environment; she quit in 1985 to start her own practice.

Dr. Brenholz established an amniocentesis program. She counseled couples who had received abnormal results, saw women referred by infertility specialists, as well as those who had suffered miscarriages. She saw children with birth defects, and in some cases, was able to steer the family towards appropriate testing and corrective measures. She also counseled young Hasidic women who wanted to get pregnant but were worried about the effects of psychotropic drugs they’d been prescribed on the developing fetus. In the mid-1990s, she began testing women with familial breast cancer for the BRACA I and II genes.

With the variety of patients seen, Dr. Brenholz was able to bill herself as “a GP geneticist,” a role she subsequently expanded in concurrent roles of running a cancer cytogenetic lab at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson, NJ, and establishing the Genetics and Birth Defects Center at Morristown Memorial Hospital in Morristown, NJ, where she contracted with the State of New Jersey to evaluate, test, and diagnose patients who had been institutionalized for developmental disabilities.

“We were able to comfort parents who felt they had done something wrong and unknowingly put their offspring at risk. We were also able to determine whether the disability was genetic or sporadic and if the condition could be passed on by a family member. That enabled the siblings of many of these individuals to decide whether they could safely have children and explore the options available to them.”

Today, Dr. Brenholz, who is also a Founding Fellow of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, serves as Director of Cytogenetics at Integrated Oncology, of Labcorp testing genes associated with various cancers and providing clinicians with more specific, personalized cancer diagnosis.

“People ask, ‘Why don’t you retire?’, but I believe it’s true that if you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life.”

Her appreciation for Einstein runs as deep as her passion for her work.

“Medical school was the time of my life – and life was easier when Einstein gave me a scholarship,” she says. “I loved every course and every professor. I met my husband at Einstein – you can’t beat that! [The late Charles Pollak, MD ’67 was a pioneer in sleep disorders research and treatment.] But it goes deeper than that. It’s not just that I became a doctor. I literally became a different person – someone who is fulfilled. So, I give back with pleasure.”

Drs. Brenholz and Pollak have been regularly supporting Einstein’s Annual Fund over the years, and when the Dean’s Society launched in the spring of 2022, Dr. Brehnolz was one of the first graduates to step forward and join.

“It is wonderful to see alumni, like Dr. Brenholz, celebrate the role Einstein played in their lives by supporting a new generation of students,” said Arianne Andrusco, Director of Annual Giving.

Additionally, Dr. Brenholz recently established the Dr. Pauline Brenholz and Dr. Charles Pollak Endowed Scholarship Fund, which thanks to the support of an anonymous donor, will have the twice the impact in providing need-based financial aid for Einstein students.