Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said yesterday that she agreed to edit the American Medical Association's prestigious journal only after receiving assurances that the AMA would not meddle in editorial decisions.
"My role as editor is to guard what I see as a sacred trust to the scientific community and that involves complete editorial freedom," said DeAngelis, whose appointment to the top position at the Journal of the American Medical Association was announced yesterday.
DeAngelis, who started her career as a nurse, becomes the first woman to edit the Chicago-based journal in its 116-year history. On Sept. 1, Dr. Marcia Angell became the first woman to head the New England Journal of Medicine, a rival medical journal based in Boston. Angell said yesterday she did not know DeAngelis, but was "delighted" that a woman was appointed to the post.
The issue of editorial freedom at JAMA became a matter of controversy following the firing in January of Dr. George Lundberg, the longtime editor. The organization dismissed him after the journal published an article about the sexual attitudes of college students, which appeared about the time of President Clinton's impeachment trial.
Dr. E. Ratcliffe Anderson, the AMA's executive vice president, said Lundberg wrongly injected the journal into politics.
DeAngelis, vice dean for academic affairs and faculty at Hopkins, said she was concerned about the Lundberg firing when it happened. When offered the job, she asked for and received assurances that the AMA would not interfere in editorial judgments, she said.
Instead of reporting to the AMA, DeAngelis will report to an oversight committee made up of seven experts from outside the organization and one from within. This safeguard was put in place following the Lundberg firing, when editorial control was handed over to a group of acting co-editors.
Reached yesterday in Chicago, Lundberg said it remains to be seen whether the measure is enough to insulate his successor from AMA interference. He said the sex study was merely the last straw in a long history of meddling by the organization, which often objected to progressive stands he took on health care policy and other social issues.
"I was under constant pressure by AMA members and employees the entire time I was there," said Lundberg, who was editor for 17 years. "It was usual rather than the exception. I did not succumb to it, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen in spades."
Meanwhile, Lundberg said DeAngelis is a "highly regarded, well-known and respected academic pediatrician." As JAMA editor, Lundberg hired DeAngelis to edit the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, an AMA publication.
"I believe that Dr. DeAngelis brings many strengths to her new position, including a strong will and a high regard for moral and ethical behavior," said Lundberg, who now edits an online medical journal. "She will need that when she tries to work with her new employer."
DeAngelis will begin work at JAMA on Jan. 1, but said she will return to Hopkins once a month to teach and do research. She said she would like to remain in the position for five to 10 years, then return to Hopkins to work full time in some capacity.
Yesterday, DeAngelis said she doesn't plan major changes but would like to include more articles about children and others that will help general practitioners understand new developments in molecular science.
DeAngelis, 59, grew up in Old Forge, Pa., a small town near Scranton, in an Italian-American family that valued education but didn't see women aspiring to become doctors. Her father worked in a silk mill.
She obtained a nursing degree at a Scranton hospital, then spent one year working at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York before returning to college in preparation for a career as a doctor.
"I think the education and training in nursing was spectacular and made me a much better doctor," she said. "I was never sorry."
She earned her medical degree at the University of Pittsburgh, and trained in pediatrics at Hopkins. She became an associate professor of pediatrics in 1978. She established Hopkins' first research program in general pediatrics, which focused on such everyday problems as ear infections and childhood fevers.
In 1990, she was appointed vice dean.
Dr. Edward Miller, chief operating officer of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, applauded her appointment to the editorship of JAMA:
"She's been one of the real stalwarts here at Johns Hopkins in the field of education and has played an important role in continuing medical education. I think it's a great appointment."