Dr. Gertrude M. Novak, 1928-2013
Pathologist took up family practice in her 50s
June 19, 2013|By Bob Goldsborough, Special to the Tribune
Dr. Gertrude Novak traveled the globe on medical missions.
Gertrude Novak fled the Nazis as a girl, leaving her native Vienna with one of her sisters just before Germany annexed Austria.
Moving first to England and later to New York, she eventually gained an Ivy League education, attended medical school and became a pathologist at Cook County Hospital. In her early 50s, Dr. Novak shifted gears to become a family practice doctor at the hospital.
Dr. Novak later taught at Rush University Medical Center and at Malcolm X College.
"She was a phenomenal instructor. It was like she had more energy than everybody in the class," said Barbara Davis, a physician assistant who was one of Dr. Novak's students at Malcolm X.
Dr. Novak, 84, died of complications from leukemia on Tuesday, May 21, at The Grove living and rehabilitation center in Lincoln Park, said her niece, Leslie Wyman Cooper. She was a resident of Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood.
The daughter of a prominent gynecologist, Dr. Novak left Austria as the Nazis took over in March 1938. In England she studied at two different boarding schools, then was reunited with her family in New York City in 1940.
Dr. Novak earned a math degree from Cornell University and a medical degree from New York Medical College. She joined Cook County Hospital's staff in 1953. Five years later she was promoted to assistant head of the pathology department, and she remained in that position until 1981.
She took frequent medical mission trips to countries including Haiti, Nepal and Brazil, which spurred an interest in the more personal aspects of medical care. She started at Cook County Hospital's family practice program in her early 50s, going through her medical residency with much younger colleagues.
"I think she was just very interested from her different mission trips in doing that kind of work, where she could really be hands-on and interact much more with people and see the results of her medicine," Cooper said. "She loved those mission trips."
Seanra Kalil, a physician assistant who was a student of Dr. Novak's and later worked alongside her in the physician assistant program at Malcolm X College, recalled that Dr. Novak frequently invoked her career transition for her students.
"She always encouraged people and told them that if she could do something like that, they could do anything," Kalil said.
From 1981 until 1992, Dr. Novak saw family practice patients at Cook County Hospital. She also earned a master's degree in public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
After leaving Cook County Hospital in 1992, Dr. Novak worked as an instructor of microscopic anatomy at Rush University Medical Center and was one of the founding instructors in the physician assistants program at Malcolm X College. She remained in both positions until she was in her 80s, her niece said.
Dr. Novak also volunteered at Chicago's Health Care for the Homeless project, El Dorado Home Health Service and the Bethel Clinic. She also served as a docent at the Field Museum and as an usher at the Lyric Opera.
Dr. Novak was fluent in Esperanto and held a number of positions with organizations connected with the language, said her friend Charlie Gunn.
"Gertrude was always hosting people as our society, driving them around and being a tour guide," Gunn said. "She was so selfless and unassuming, and was always focused on service."
Dr. Novak also tutored immigrants. Ngoedup Wangmo, who moved with her family from Nepal to Chicago in 1993, recalled Dr. Novak's willingness to help and to drive Wangmo's young son to school each day.
Dr. Novak also paid for Wangmo's sons' tuition at a private school on the North Side. Ultimately, Wangmo said, Dr. Novak became part of the family, traveling with them around the U.S. and overseas.
Dr. Novak's survivors include two sisters, Dr. Lisl Gaal and Lotte "Toni" Wyman.
A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 27, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, 708 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.