Still in a rumpled green smock after a four-hour cranial operation, the neurosurgeon picks up the phone to call home. “Hi, Sweetpea,” says Dr. Frances Conley, “what are you doing? Cooking lamb shanks? That’s wonderful!”
Frances spelled with an “e,” that’s right. But “Sweetpea” is no domesticated househusband. He’s Philip Conley, an ex-Olympic javelin star (Melbourne, 1956), now a successful freelance financial counselor. So why is he minding the stove? Because she works 12-hours-plus days at the hospital, and he conducts his business from home.
Fran Conley looks more a candystriper than the 36-year-old chief of neurosurgery at the 1,300-bed VA hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. (There are only a handful of women in her medical specialty throughout the U.S.) “If I were a man, nobody would be looking twice at what I do,” Fran says modestly. “I haven’t done a great piece of research or introduced a lot of new operating procedures. But I don’t mind getting publicity until our society comes to grips with the fact that women have as much talent as men and can hold their own without losing their femininity.”
Fran has certainly managed. The daughter of a Stanford University geochemistry professor, she completed both premed and medical school at Stanford and headed toward plastic surgery—the first female surgical intern in the school’s history. Seven months into the program, she decided that plastic surgery bored her. “The cases were already diagnosed when the patient walked in. Either the nose was too big or the boobs too small.”
She moved to neurosurgery “where I felt needed,” went on to eight years of residency at Stanford, became an assistant professor there and won her appointment at the VA hospital, where she also carries on research in brain tumors (“If I had my druthers I’d escape into a lab”). But work isn’t all. She is, for example, a track and field addict.
While watching a Russian-American meet in her medical school days, Fran was appalled by the performance of U.S. women javelin throwers. “In my naiveté I thought I could do better,” she recalls. The next day she went out and “there was this handsome creature. I had no qualms about asking him to teach me to throw the javelin.” Ten months later she and Phil were married.
As it turned out, Fran didn’t take up her husband’s athletic specialty but chose distance running instead. She broke the sex barrier against female entries in San Francisco’s 7.8-mile Bay-to-Breakers road race in 1966, and five years later won the women’s division with a time of 50:44 minutes. A hamstring injury ended her competitive career, but she still runs five miles a day almost as a meditation. “That’s my time,” she says. “I do an awful lot of planning and thinking then.”
Home to the Conleys is a house in the woods near Stanford (and a vacation place on the coast north of San Francisco). Married 13 years, Fran and Phil say they do not plan to have children. “If either of us felt strongly,” she says, “the other would go along. Obviously no one feels that strongly.” Surgery, Dr. Conley has found, bears certain resemblances to housework—cutting, kneading, fitting. “That’s one reason gals do well as surgeons. They have manual dexterity. Men are usually clumsy to start, but,” Fran adds with a grin, “they can learn.”