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History of Genetic Counseling

Sheldon C. Reed PhD coined the term “genetic counseling” soon after he joined the Dight Institute for Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota.  The Dight Institute had in its mission to provide courses and public lectures about human genetics, to participate in research, and to be available for consultation about questions related to human genetics.  In the years that Dr. Reed was at the Dight Institute it is estimated that he responded to over 4,000 such questions.

From the late 1940’s to the mid 1950’s, Dr. Reed attempted to describe the nature of the genetic questions and the unique responses that emerged.  In a series of meetings and publications of the Dight Institute, Dr. Reed began to introduce the term genetic counseling.  In 1955, he presented the concept at the first International Congress on Human Genetics in Copenhagen.  Also, in that same year, his classic work, "Counseling in Medical Genetics" was published.

Melissa Richter PhD must be credited with the idea of genetic counselor professionals. Melissa Richter, an SLC graduate who taught both psychology and biology before becoming Director of SLC’s Center for Continuing Education, saw a great opportunity in this challenge.

“In the late 1960’s, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville NY sensed the need for a new type of professional, one conversant with the manifestations of genetic disease as were techniques of psychosocial support” (SLC).  This vision evolved to the establishment of the first genetic counseling training program.

By 1979, the profession of genetic counselors was ready to establish the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC). The NSGC is the leading voice, authority, and advocate for the genetic counselor profession.  Many practicing genetic counselors in NYS had critical leadership roles.  To learn more: Heimler A. An Oral History of the National Society of Genetic Counselors.  J Genet Couns. 1997 September;  6(3): 315-336 and Rollnick B. the National Society of Genetic Counselors: An Historical Perspective.

Birth Defects Orig Artic Ser. 1984;20(6):3-7
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 1968, she formally proposed that SLC create a master’s–level program for genetic counselors.  With the support of Dean Jacquelyn Matt 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.

In the fall of 1972, Melissa Richter took a sabbatical at Radcliffe College.  Unbeknownst to her colleagues, Richter was suffering from breast cancer and wouldn’t return to the program she had founded.  Richter was replaced first by Jessica Davis, MD and Joan Marks (SLC ’51), as Directors of the SLCHGP.

In the 1980’s, the field of genetic counseling grew rapidly.  With an estimated 50 million Americans having genetic conditions and some 5,000 diseases having been identified as being genetic in origin, the demand for services continued to grow.

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