A Half-Century of Progress at UConn Health

Rheumatologist Dr. Naomi Rothfield, front row center, with the first class of medical students at UConn Health, then known as the UConn Health Center.
Rheumatologist Dr. Naomi Rothfield, front row center, with the first class of medical students at UConn Health, then known as the UConn Health Center. She retires this month after nearly 50 years on the faculty.

SHARELINES

When Dr. Naomi Rothfield arrived at the new University of Connecticut School of Medicine in summer 1968 as a young rheumatologist, UConn Health’s Farmington campus did not yet exist. The autoimmune diseases she studied and treated, including lupus and scleroderma, were often fatal within two years of diagnosis. She had gone through medical school at New York University in a class with only six women and 125 men.

In the nearly 50 years since Rothfield was hired as one of the first four female faculty members of the medical school, much has changed. UConn Health’s physical presence includes several shiny new buildings on the 106-acre Farmington site, as well as offices throughout the state. Lupus and scleroderma are no longer death sentences, but treatable illnesses (Rothfield still sees a lupus patient who first came to her in 1966). And today, women make up just about half of all medical school students nationwide and about half of UConn Health’s faculty.

But it wasn’t just the changes around her that made her career monumental – it was the changes Rothfield, 86, effected herself before her retirement this month.

“Dr. Rothfield is a legend in the field of medicine,” says Dr. Augustus D. Mazzocca, chairman of the department of orthopaedic surgery and director of the Musculoskeletal Institute at UConn Health. “She is a pioneer who always put patients and education before all else, an example for all people involved in healthcare.”

Despite numerous honors and achievements, the ever-modest Rothfield doesn’t see it that way. But just let her CV speak for her: She built from the ground up UConn’s Division of Rheumatic Diseases as its chief from 1973 to 1999, training dozens of leading rheumatologists worldwide (she says that’s her proudest accomplishment). She brought in millions in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institutes of Health to conduct trailblazing research in her field, deepening the understanding of rheumatologic diseases through more than 150 published papers and 40 book chapters. And in the 1970s, she even fought for equal pay for women at the University.

Her love for teaching and interacting with her longtime patients kept her going for so many years, she says. But now it’s time to visit her four children and six grandchildren, exercise, and travel with her husband, Dr. Lawrence Rothfield.

“I stayed at UConn because I was happy here,” Rothfield says. “It’s time to retire and enjoy myself. I have a few other things I want to do.”