Romanian physician Sofia Ionescu (1920–2008) is widely known in the medical community as the first female neurosurgeon to practice in southeastern Europe, as well as one of the first female neurosurgeons in the world.
Honored in her native Romania, Sofia Ionescu was the first female neurosurgeon to practice in southeastern Europe. During her career, she performed procedures, conducted research, and published well-received papers and journal articles. Ionescu was noted for developing creative solutions to what once seemed to be daunting medical challenges. She also found the time to teach and was an example to other women in her field.
Neurosurgery is the surgical specialization that focuses on diseases and disorders of the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. It involves the prevention, diagnosis, and surgical treatment of the central nervous system, as well as of the peripheral nervous system, which contains all of the nerves in the body that lie outside of the spinal cord and brain.
In Romania, neurosurgery was pioneered by Gheorghe Marinescu (1863–1938), Nicolae Paulescu (1869–1931), and Grigore T. Popa (1892–1948). It became a specialty in Romanian medicine in 1935. Previously, neurosurgery was performed sporadically, its practice limited to the most talented surgeons. After completing four years of medical school, a neurosurgeon serves a one-year internship and five to six years of neurosurgical residency training and additional training in a neurosurgical specialty.
Ionescu was born on April 25, 1920, in Falticeni, a small city located in the northeast region of Romania. Her father, Constantin Ogrezeanu, was a bank teller in the local branch of the National Romanian Bank, and her mother, Maria Ogrezeanu, took care of the home. Ionescu attended primary school, then completed the first six grades at the Falticeni High School for Girls. For her final two years of secondary school, she attended the Marica Brancoveanu Central School for Girls, which is located in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, 260 miles to the south. Ionescu graduated from high school in 1939, earning her baccalaureate.
Ionescu's interest in medicine grew after she met the father of one of her best friends, Aurelia Dumitru, who was a doctor. When another of her best school friends died from an infection following brain surgery, she was determined to attend medical school and become a doctor. Her father objected, hoping to see his daughter become a traditional housewife and mother. Maria Ogrezeanu supported her daughter in her ambitions, however, and Ionescu began medical school, matriculating at the Faculty of Human Medicine of Bucharest during the fall of 1939.
During her first year of internship, Ionescu studied ophthalmology, learning about eye and vision care, and then studied other practical stages. By 1943, she was studying in Suceava, the largest city in northern Romania, where she also completed a second internship as a general doctor in nearby Baia Mare, a rural village 20 miles south and close to her hometown of Falticeni. Although the village had a clinic, it was poorly equipped and unable to help the village when an epidemic of typhus broke out.
By now World War II was underway, and Romania had joined the Soviet Union and other Axis powers against Great Britain, France, and the other allies fighting Nazi Germany. During a break between semesters, Ionescu volunteered to work at Stamate Hospital, located in Falticeni, where injured Soviet soldiers were being taken and treated. It would be here, at Stamate Hospital, where she would perform her first surgical operations. It was wartime, the Allies were bombing Romania, and these surgeries were frequently limb amputations. Things became worse in 1944, when Romania's King Michael I changed his allegiance to the Allies and the Soviet Union turned on Romania, attempting to gain control of the country while losing the greater war in 1945.
As Ionescu would later recall, a turning point in her career came in 1944, when Bucharest was bombed during an air raid. A young boy was admitted to the emergency area, with head injuries and comatose. Due to wartime shortages, there were not enough specialty physicians to handle all of the war injuries that kept Romanian hospitals full to overflowing. Dr. Bagdasar had cut his finger and his wound festered, so he was not able to operate on the child's brain. He was surprised but grateful when Ionescu volunteered to perform what would be her first brain surgery. The surgery was successful, and a 24-year-old Ionescu went home that night knowing that she had saved a child's life. While she had planned to work as an internist in her home town, she now saw her future in neurosurgery.
In 1945, the same year that saw the end of World War II, Ionescu graduated from the Faculty of Human Medicine of Bucharest, having studied under several notable figures in European medicine. Her teachers included Francisc Rainer (1874–1994), Nobel Prize laureate George Emil Palade (1912–2008), and professors Alfred Rusescu (1895–1981) and N. Ionescu-Sisesti (1888–1954).
During her internship, Ionescu worked at the Neurosurgery Service of Hospital No. 9 in Bucharest, where she had the good fortune to become part of the first neurosurgical team. Then considered the top professionals on the European continent, team members included Dr. Dimitrie Bagdasar, the founder of Romanian neurosurgery, as well as doctors Constantin Arseni and Ionel Ionescu. Ionescu had taken a summer internship in Bagdasar's clinic in 1943, and she would now better prepare for the neurology specialty.
As Bagdasar explained, she would work at a grueling work pace. Her day would begin at 5 a.m. and continue without stop into the night. The facility was already overcrowded with patients, and more entered both day and night. Ionescu was not daunted by Bagdasar's ominous description. One benefit of her situation was meeting Ionel Ionescu, whom she married in 1945. That same year, Ionel earned his doctorate and she earned her Ph.D. in medicine and surgery.
Ionescu worked in the medical profession for 47 years, all of them at Bucharest's Hospital No. 9. At the height of her career, a typical day included performing brain surgery in the morning, spine surgery in the afternoon, and raising her two children. At one point, she became a consultant and started writing two or three major papers each year. These journal articles were published internationally. She also taught future physicians and furthered the standing of her Romanian colleagues. She set an example for other women who were inspired to consider careers in neurosurgery, particularly throughout eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
By the end of her career, Ionescu was recognized throughout the world for her outstanding contributions to the field of neurosurgery, especially for her operations on the spinal cord and the brain. She published more than 120 scientific works of medical investigation in distinguished professional journals such as Acta Chirurgica Belgica, Journal of Surgery, Neurology, Psychiatry, Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Revue Roumaine d'Endocrinologie. She also received many awards and titles, among them the Star of the Republic, the highest distinction of the Romanian state. For special deeds performed while was still a student, she received the Insignia of the Red Cross (1943); other awards included the XXth Anniversary of Country Liberation honor (1964) and several honorary diplomas. Her memberships included the Romanian Academy of Medical Sciences and the Romanian Society for the History of Medicine.
In early March 2008, Ionescu received the highest honor yet, when she was named a knight of Romania's Steaua Republicii. She died only days later, at age 88, on March 21, 2008, in Bucharest. She was buried at the Bellu Cemetery in her home city of Falticeni.
The Publishing House of the Romanian Academy, March 18, 2015.
Wonderful Romania website, http://www.wonderfulromania.com/ (November 1, 2016), “Famous Romanian Women: Sofia Ionescu, the First Woman Neurosurgeon in Southeastern Europe.”❑