The Profile

Marian Earls, M.D., '76 and Naomi Earls Leslie, M.D., '00

By Corrie Lisk-Hurst

Which of these women played a historic role at Holy Cross, earned her medical degree at a top-notch institution and now is an active advocate for children's access to healthcare? If you guessed "both," you're right.

Marian Earls, M.D., '76 was one of 30 women admitted to the first coed class of Holy Cross in 1972. Her daughter, Naomi Earls Leslie, M.D., '00, was the first daughter of an alumna to graduate from the College. Holy Cross Magazine featured the first mother-daughter alumnae pair on a 1997 cover celebrating 25 years of women at Holy Cross, and the duo returned last year to recreate that portrait.

Earls is now a practicing developmental and behavioral health physician and a powerful voice for children's access to health care nationally. Leslie is in her final year of a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University Medical Center. Earls' medical practice focuses on the "whole child," spanning early childhood to adolescence. She has a particular focus in early childhood and early brain development. In contrast, Leslie works primarily with troubled but "neurotypical" adolescents who have experienced psychological traumas.

Earls and Leslie both chose careers that demand intelligence and compassion. "I heard a lot about being a person for others from my dad and during my Holy Cross experience," says Earls, "but I realized I was affected by that message beyond college, too-at the 25-year anniversary of women at Holy Cross celebration, I really saw the legacy of being a person for others."

Earls didn't go right to medical school after graduation: She went to Harvard Divinity School, earning her master's degree in theology. While there, she was encouraged by others to apply to medical school. At the University of Massachusetts Medical School, she began turning her philosophical beliefs into practical action. Earls has been active in the Greensboro, N.C., community where she is the medical director at Guilford Child Health-a large, nonprofit, private pediatric practice that serves families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. And she is passionately committed to her work with the North Carolina Pediatric Society (of which she was president from 2008 to 2010) and the American Academy of Pediatrics-where she has played leading roles in the early education and childcare section, the national mental health leadership workgroup, the Quality Improvement Network Steering Committee and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.

Leslie says, initially, she wasn't sure she wanted to commit to medical school: "My mom has always been a fantastic role model, but I also saw how hard her work was. As a young adult, I didn't know if I wanted to put myself through that." So she worked for a year at the Key Program, Inc., a Worcester-based nonprofit focused on helping troubled youth and their families develop life skills that yield rewarding life experiences.

While there, Leslie says she felt at home working with "kids who were labeled 'bad kids' by someone-school, parent, truancy officer." Noting that she found it "exhilarating and fun," she adds,  "I realized that these were kids facing normal, usual childhood problems ... just complicated by difficult living situations, lack of support, and ineffective coping mechanisms. For me, this was a way to be a person for others." She considered getting her master's degree in social work, but became convinced that biology was too important to be ignored in diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues. So she attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Medicine, then completed her residency at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center before beginning her fellowship at Stanford.

Women on Campus: Then and Now

When Earls came to the Hill in 1972, there were rumors that the newspaper photo featuring female students was used as a dartboard in some male residence halls. Earls says she didn't face much animosity, though, and recalls, "This was the time of the post-1960s social upheaval. The campus was probably blown wide open and certainly wasn't as traditional or staid as many people would have thought."

On the other hand, her daughter's matriculation class was approximately 50 percent women-about the same as the current classes-and Leslie says that "having a 50/50 gender split on campus just seemed natural. I can't imagine there being any negativity about women on campus, and there were many very dynamic women who were students and teachers there."

The campus has changed a lot over the years-Earls' favorite spot for R&R, the lounge in Fenwick, is no longer there-but the buildings and grounds still hold memories for both women. "The campus changes so rapidly!" Leslie says. "But I always try to visit Beaven Hall to look at my old classrooms. Just being anywhere on campus evokes a strong nostalgia for me."

Both mother and daughter were profoundly influenced by the intellectual rigor of the Jesuit tradition and the exceptional professors at Holy Cross. Earls cites religious studies Associate Professors Les Kline and John Worrell, in particular, and Leslie notes psychology Professors Daniel Bitran and Andrew Futterman, among others. Both women studied organic chemistry with Associate Professor Mike McGrath, the legendary former premed advisor whom Earls described as "much more than just a chemistry professor ... very supportive, a Renaissance man."

"A place where I am known and I belong"

Before Naomi and Marian, the Earls family of Southbridge, Mass., has many entries on the Holy Cross alumni family tree, including Marian's father, the late Kevin '43, and his cousins the late Gerald '40, Martin '33, Francis '39 and Arthur '34-as well as Marian's cousin Monica '77. But the Earls' oldest alumni connection-Marian's great-uncle, poet Rev. Michael Earls, S.J.-is perhaps the most famous. An 1896 graduate, Fr. Earls served as a professor and administrator, and referenced alma mater in some of his poetry, including the wartime piece, "The Towers of Holy Cross."

For generations of the Earls family, Leslie says, Holy Cross has been synonymous with an exceptional education. "On top of all that," she continues, "the fact that my mom was in the first class of women was really important to hear about when I was growing up. A feminist identity was a very important part of my upbringing-women are equal to men, and we should pursue the same goals and look for the same type of accomplishments as our male counterparts. Mom was really proud of the fact that her father was proud of her, and that became part of who I was at Holy Cross."

As a new undergraduate in 1996, far from her North Carolina home, Leslie admits to feeling homesick, but having so many family connections to Holy Cross made her feel secure and tied firmly to the College. In her words, "This is a place where I am known and I belong." 

Corrie Lisk-Hurst is the founder of The Better Editor (thebettereditor.com), a Greensboro, N.C.-based ghostwriting and business communication firm.

 

Stats:

Where they practice: Greensboro, N.C. (Marian) and Palo Alto, Calif. (Naomi)

Majors at Holy Cross: Biology (Marian) and Psychology (Naomi)

Star turn on Holy Cross Magazine cover: November/December 1997

Notable Uncle: Rev. Michael Earls, S.J., Class of 1896. A poet, he referenced his beloved alma mater in some of his work. Fr. Earls is responsible for  bringing his friend, G. K. Chesterton, to Holy Cross in the winter of 1930. The visit of the British writer, probably the most famous convert to Catholicism of the time, attracted national interest.