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Working with a volunteer, Gay Sachs, Richter methodically surveyed 184 directors of medical centers listed in the March of Dimes 1968 directory—and found no graduate genetic counseling training program. So in the summer of 1968, she formally proposed that SLC create a master’s-level program for genetic counselors. With the support of Dean Jacquelyn Mattfeld of SLC and outside experts such as Dr. Arthur Robinson of University of Colorado Medical School and Dr. George Berry of Harvard, she submitted grant proposals to support the development of the program. The first, to the Commonwealth Fund in December 1968, was turned down.
When Richter contacted medical professionals, she found some members of the medical establishment to be less than enthusiastic. Many saw the proposal as an encroachment on physicians’ jealously guarded turf. One hospital executive wrote that he believed the results of such a program "will be a disaster," and Wayne Finley of University of Alabama’s Laboratory of Medical Genetics said that "counseling by those without an M.D." was "potentially dangerous."
Others were more encouraging. Dr. John Littlefield in May 1969 called to ask if SLC had a student to send to him at Massachusetts General Hospital. He later offered positions to graduates. One of those to whom Richter reached out in early 1969 was Kurt Hirschhorn, chief of the division of medical genetics and a professor at New York University. Hirschhorn proved a valuable ally. He agreed to allow SLC students to take Human Genetics and Cytogenetics courses at NYU.
In early 1969, the still-inchoate program received an unexpected spur. An article in the New York Times Magazine on March 2, 1969, entitled "Will the Baby Be Normal?" introduced the American public to the role a genetic counselor could play. The article noted that each year 200,000 American children were born with disabling defects. But given the huge expansion of genetic knowledge—and with the advent of technology such as amniocentesis—doctors and other professionals were making strides in taking the guesswork out of predicting genetic risk for disease. The writer, Robert Stock, referred to the new field of genetic counseling as "something of a stepchild"—since it was not formally recognized as a medical specialty and no government research grants supported it. And the demand for the services of professionals who could "translate this revolution into human terms" far exceeded the supply. Stock noted (inaccurately) that "Sarah Lawrence College has plans to establish a program to train such aides."
SLC was instantly inundated with requests for information. And even though there were no funds, no faculty, no facilities and no curriculum, Richter and her colleagues rushed to start a program.
Ten students were accepted for the fall 1969 semester, ranging in age from 27 to 50. All were married women with children, and only five had been undergraduate science majors. "We believed strongly that any woman could be trained to do this and that mature women would be better able to counsel," Richter said. The first semester included a genetics course taught by biology professor Marilyn Bailin, a statistics course taught by Professor Edward Cogan, and Hirschhorn’s medical genetics course. The second semester curriculum featured courses on social psychiatry with Dr. Erika Freeman and human physiology with Dr. Immanuela Moss of New York University.
As the school year got under way, Richter’s search for funds bore fruit. In December 1969 the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation agreed to offer $20,000 to cover start-up costs. In the fall of 1969, SLC applied to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) for aid. The following spring, a government team visited the site on a day Sarah Lawrence students were demonstrating for women’s freedom by wearing no bras! Nonetheless, in June 1970, HEW’s Health Manpower Training Division announced a five-year grant of $320,000 to SLC.
The program found a small but enthusiastic applicant pool. As Richter put it in a 1970 speech, "I watched two or three women a year, who had begun pre-med training, change their minds because they were contemplating marriage and having children. But these women who were highly intelligent and who had their minds set on medicine found themselves at a loss to choose an alternate profession." The program offered them an outlet, or, as student Amy Hample put it, "a bridge between the years at home and the world of work."
In the fall of 1970, 12 new students enrolled. That year, the program made formal arrangements with Mt. Sinai and Einstein College of Medicine to give credit for clinical work done by students at either institution. "As I recall, these placement were rather informal and we vied with each other to observe cases," wrote one early student, Eva Taben (MS, ‘71). "In the end, our assertiveness achieved results and we saw a good number of cases and learned a great deal. We were also learning to define what our role would be as genetic counselors." That year, Dr. Harold Nitowsky joined the faculty to teach human genetics and cytogenetics specifically for SLCHGP students. Nitowsky would remain affiliated with the program until 1989.
In 1971, eight women graduated with SLC undergraduates at the program’s first commencement. The commencement speaker was Rene Dubos, author of So Human an Animal. The ceremony was followed by a potluck dinner at the house of Eva Taben. And, as she put it, "that was the start of the genetic counseling profession." Upon graduation, six of the students took jobs as genetic counselors, at salaries between $10,000 and $11,000.
With the first class having graduated, the SLCHGP was already recognized. By 1971 the American Journal of Human Genetics referred to the program as "pioneering in the establishment of curricula dealing with the biologic, social, and psychologic aspects of genetic counseling and the graduates of the program could function effectively under the supervision of fully trained medical geneticists." In the 1971-72 academic year, five universities called or visited to gain information. Meanwhile, Richter traveled the country and spoke about the program.
In the space of three years, the SLCHGP had evolved from a vague idea into a functioning program. In the coming years, it would blossom and successfully meet many new challenges.