Given that she’s the founding dean of the UNLV School of Medicine, it’s not surprising that what we know about Dr. Barbara Atkinson is largely confined to her trailblazing career in medicine.
That in itself, of course, is a powerful story. She’s now doing what no other American woman has done, leading a third medical school in the U.S. We’ve learned that this grandmother, a member of the prestigious National Academy of Medicine, didn’t even start medical school until her two children entered grade school —
that she came out of retirement in 2014 after a sterling 37 year career to create the first public academic medical center in Las Vegas. The National Library of Medicine’s biographical entry on Dr. Atkinson —
she was appointed in 2010 by President Barack Obama to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics —
details her 1974 graduation from Jefferson Medical school and her rise to national prominence as a cell researcher, author and educator at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. That work led to a deanship at the Hahnemann University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Dr. Atkinson would then move on in 2002 to positions as executive dean and executive vice chancellor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, from which she retired in 2012.
Yes, her career in medicine affords a compelling account of accomplishment. But now, as a result of her outreach to the Italian American community in Las Vegas —
she wants everyone in Southern Nevada to understand the UNLV School of Medicine is here to serve them —
we get a better sense of how Dr. Barbara Frajola Atkinson’s family background played a role in her willingness to overcome challenges. In the June issue of
, a magazine which labels itself as “Las Vegas’s Italian American Voice” and where a monthly health column by Dr. Atkinson will appear beginning in July, we learn that her grandmother and grandfather, who met in Minnesota after immigrating to the U.S. from Italy, were risk takers who overcame tremendous hardships to build better lives.
“My grandmother —
she was Anna Fabri before marriage —
came to the U.S. all by herself during World War I at the age of 16,” Dr. Atkinson told
“My grandmother has a lot of courage. She was from a tiny town, Fossato di Vico. She got a loan from an aunt. She didn’t speak any English when she moved to Minnesota. My grandfather, Louis Frajola, grew up in Rome. He helped dig the Simplon railway tunnel between Switzerland and Italy
(for decades the 65,000 foot passage was the world’s longest railway tunnel)
to earn money for the trip to America. It was very dangerous —
many men died. But my grandfather made it to Minnesota to work in the iron ore mines. My grandparents had a hard life there, but they persevered.”
As the article points out, the more Dr. Atkinson discusses the qualities she sees in her late Italian immigrant grandparents —
tenacity, toughness, perseverance —
the more you are reminded of the adage, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Dr. Atkinson says the fierce drive of her grandfather was passed on to her father, Walter Frajola, the man who had a huge influence on her future life in medicine.
Histories note that life was hard on Minnesota’s Iron Range, where Louis Frajola worked. Miners put in long hours and received low wages. Hundreds died in accidents. Families lived in substandard housing. Immigrants also confronted prejudice. Italians were seen as physically and intellectually inferior by mining officials. Though they had no formal education, Dr. Atkinson’s grandparents prized education as a way to a better life, as is evidenced by their son Walter Frajola earning a doctorate in the sciences and becoming a biochemistry professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. He would allow his daughter to use the electron microscope in his lab after classes were out, which ultimately led to Dr. Atkinson’s interest in medicine. At Ohio State, she met the man she married, G. William Atkinson, a medical student who’d become a pulmonary internist as well as the father of her two children.
piece, we also learn that Dr. Atkinson —
her love of literature came from her teacher mother, who was of English descent —
not only learned the art of Italian cooking from her grandmother, but also how to deal with groups of people of varied backgrounds. “My grandmother made noodles every day —
she made all the pastas. I loved the large get-togethers we had. They taught me how to interact with people.”
It turns out that Dr. Atkinson’s grandmother became friends in Minnesota with Rosa Mondavi, whose son Robert founded the Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley, California. The Mondavis shipped grapes from California to friends in Minnesota so wine could be made there.
Dr. Atkinson’s daughter, Nancy Perkins, said the influence of Louis and Anna Frajola continues to be felt throughout the family. She said she became an executive chef because of her great grandmother, who she called “Nonna,” the Italian word for grandmother. “When she came to our house, she’d spend all day cooking,” said Perkins, who attended the famed Culinary Institute of America before going to work in Florida. “We’d go to the Italian market at the beginning of every day to get the right ingredients. Nonna had to get it just right. She passed that on to her son, my grandfather. And he passed it on to my mother. You push and push until you get it right. You persevere.”
Perseverance is a hallmark of Dr. Atkinson’s leadership at the medical school, including keeping accreditation on track and in her community outreach efforts. That outreach helped cultivate donors who made scholarships available to all 60 students in our charter class as well as to the majority of second year students. The benefits of her work in community outreach will again be on display this fall as half of the proceeds from a Las Vegas India Chamber of Commerce gala/fashion show at Treasure Island will go to scholarships for UNLV School of Medicine students.
(As the event draws closer, information on how to buy tickets will be made available.)
“I’m fortunate,” Dr. Atkinson said, “that the perseverance of my grandparents has been passed on to me.”
So are the people of Southern Nevada.
(To subscribe to La Voce, where Dr. Atkinson’s monthly column appears, you can find it online at
call La Voce Publishing Co., 702-656-6450. It’s also distributed at 360 outlets in Southern Nevada, including Italian restaurants and the UNLV Student Union. Copies can also be picked up at the UNLV School of Medicine’s third floor administrative offices at 2040 West Charleston Blvd.)