Pregnant while attending Harvard Law School in the late 1950s, Rhoda Isselbacher found a characteristically no-nonsense solution to a key dilemma. The school only began admitting women several years earlier, and the restrooms closest to classrooms were all designated for men.
Addressing a lecture hall full of male students, Mrs. Isselbacher proposed using their bathroom when it was available, and posting a sign on the door to let everyone know. To her surprise, loud applause greeted her proposal, which was just as well for the guys. She was always a straight-shooter, conversationally or otherwise, as the situation dictated.
Years earlier, when she was a 10-year-old in Springfield, her father installed her as a cashier in his store. After school, she “could ring up an order in no time flat and could pack a bag with the eggs on top and the cans on the bottom and the baked goods on the side quicker than you could blink an eye,” she recalled in a draft for a planned memoir.
“In those days, one had to be afraid of being robbed,” she added, “and so I had underneath my cash register a gun which my father had taught me to shoot in the backyard, and if he was ever held up and a man was threatening him and I could see it all from the back, I was to shoot the man and be done with it.”
Mrs. Isselbacher, whose career as a lawyer ranged from estates to patient advocacy and medical regulatory issues, died of acute myelogenous leukemia Friday in her Newton home. She was 83.
Though she never had to fire the gun in her father’s store, or while carrying it to the bank to guard each day’s receipts, those youthful experiences fostered a confidence that led her to shrug off gender barriers and expectations during a legal career that included serving as a counselor and advisor during name-change negotiations when Sidney Farber Cancer Institute became Dana-Farber.
Recruited by Dr. Baruj Benacerraf, a Nobel Prize-winner who was president of the institute at the beginning of the 1980s, Mrs. Isselbacher was the lawyer physicians turned to for advice on everything from regulatory matters to employment law as the facility expanded.
“Most of us who are doctors don’t know anything about regulatory law. She did,” said Dr. David G. Nathan, who was chief of pediatric oncology at the time and later became Dana-Farber’s president. “I just had to have somebody tell me A from B, and that’s what Rhoda could do in a very clear way. She was a very clear-minded and honorable person.”
She also was as forthright with hospital administrators as she had been with her law school classmates. “Rhoda never threw a curveball,” Nathan said. “Just straight down the middle.”
An inspiration to male and female colleagues alike, and to her family, Mrs. Isselbacher “was articulate and opinionated and forceful, but respectful,” said her daughter Dr. Kate Isselbacher of Newton. “She could bring people together.”
From an early age Mrs. Isselbacher “believed that there was nothing she couldn’t do or shouldn’t do,” said her son, Dr. Eric Isselbacher, who also lives in Newton. He added that “because of her experience when she was younger, she believed no one decides for you who you are and what you will become. Only you decide.”
Rhoda June Solin was born in Springfield to Jay Solin and the former Theo Michelman. Only 6 months old when her mother died, she went to live for a few years with her father’s many brothers and sisters in Chicopee, where “I would grow up as a beloved child whom everybody took care of and nobody mothered,” she recalled for her memoir.
She was 4 when her father married Frieda Rosenthal, a buyer for the Forbes & Wallace department store in Springfield. In the memoir draft, Mrs. Isselbacher cast a precise, unsentimental eye at events in her life that included leaving kindergarten one day as the Hurricane of 1938 swept into the region. “I walked home in the midst of horrible wind and rain thinking this was just another part of what one did,” she recalled.
After graduating from Classical High School in Springfield, she attended Cornell University to put several driving hours between college and childhood. She studied philosophy at Cornell and secured a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. During her second semester there, she met Dr. Kurt Isselbacher at a wedding. Like her, he had arrived with another date.
The bride “brought over Kurt and said, ‘You should dance, you’re going to get married,’ ” Mrs. Isselbacher recalled. “By the time I had finished dancing with him, I knew she was correct.” They got engaged on their third date and married within a few months.
His work brought them to Boston, and she already had two children when she graduated from Harvard Law in 1959.
Dr. Isselbacher, who would become the founding director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and the Mallinckrodt distinguished professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, was a researcher at the National Institutes of Health when they became engaged. “My friends at the NIH said, ‘Kurt, do you really know what you’re doing?’ And so sheepishly I said to Rhoda, ‘My friends say I don’t know what I’m doing,’ ” he recalled. “She said, ‘Tell them I know what you’re doing.’ ”
Their marriage “was an amazing relationship,” he said. “She was involved with every aspect of my life. She guided me in every professional decision I made. If I wasn’t assertive enough, she made sure I was.”
Dr. Daniel Podolsky, a longtime friend, marveled at that personal and professional partnership. “There’s any number of times over the years when Kurt did not miss the chance to make note that what he achieved in his career would not have been possible without her,” said Podolsky, who is president of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and formerly was chief academic officer of Partners HealthCare and chief of gastroenterology at MGH.
“She was extremely bright, very sharp,” said Avram Hershko, a friend who spent time with the Isselbachers when they were at their Woods Hole summer home. “She was a really a very remarkable lady,” added Hershko, a Nobel Prize-winner in chemistry who lives in Israel.
A service has been held for Mrs. Isselbacher, who in addition to her husband, daughter, and son leaves another daughter, Jody of Newton and eight grandchildren.
With her estates work, Mrs. Isselbacher was an attorney at Boston firms such as Mintz, Levin; Epstein, Salloway and Kaplan; and Epstein, King and Isselbacher. “In the ’80s Rhoda spent countless hours helping me understand the intricacies of her estate planning documents,” said her former partner Scott King. “She was truly a mentor to me.”
In 1999, Mrs. Isselbacher’s oldest child, Lisa, died of cancer, and Mrs. Isselbacher lived for decades after her own cancer diagnosis at 40 and aggressive treatment. “She just kept her sights on the following day and the day after that,” her daughter Kate said.
“She was very beautiful, elegant, and really a force of nature when she entered a room,” added Kate, who noted that when Mrs. Isselbacher was a child, “her father didn’t really make a secret of the fact that she wished she was a boy, rather than a girl. She felt compelled to always be more than just a little girl. I think that’s what drove her.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.