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UNC roots run deep in many families, but one UNC School of Medicine family has a unique connection to the institution, boasting three generations of physicians – all women – who received their medical education at UNC.

Sharpless-Bonanno: three generations of UNC-trained MDs
Elizabeth S. Bonanno, MD ’89, Marianne E. Bonanno, MD ’22, and Martha K. Sharpless, MD ’59, at UNC SOM graduation weekend in May 2022

Marianne Bonanno, MD ’22, is the latest member of the Sharpless-Bonanno family to graduate from UNC SOM, following in the footsteps of her mother, Elizabeth Bonanno, MD ’89, and her grandmother, Martha Sharpless, MD ’59. All three women gathered in Chapel Hill for graduation weekend in May to celebrate Marianne and this unique milestone for their family.

Martha Sharpless was one of only two women in her 1959 UNC SOM class. Hailing from Goldsboro, North Carolina, with an interest in science and a mother who emphasized education, Sharpless and her sister were the first in their family to attend college. She entered medical school at UNC, where she met her husband and pursued pediatrics, a field that female doctors were often steered toward, according to her daughter, Elizabeth Bonanno.

By the late eighties, more women were in medicine, with women representing about a quarter of Elizabeth’s class. LIke her mother, Elizabeth also met her husband at UNC SOM, but with more specialties and areas open to women, psychiatry became her calling.

As a practicing psychiatrist for many years, Elizabeth cared for severely mentally ill patients at the state hospital in Ohio before joining Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield to promote community programs for mental health. “Psychiatry in the nineties was hard,” said Elizabeth. “But I definitely grew to like it and my current job is also rewarding, in different ways.”

Elizabeth described how, even in her time when women were approximately a quarter of her class, the medical system wasn’t optimized for women and the competing demands of career and family. By 1989, “women had definitely become a significant presence in medicine, but they still hadn’t worked out the kinks in terms of lifestyle and balance.” She elected to take a few years off when she became pregnant, having doubts about balancing new motherhood with medicine.

Elizabeth is glad that things have evolved, especially for her daughter. “We’re so happy that there is much more balance now, and thrilled that Marianne will be able to balance whatever she wants.”

The newest MD in the family will do a preliminary year of medicine at Moses Cone Hospital before heading to a radiology residency at Brown University.

“I kind of always knew that medicine was going to be a good career fit for me, and UNC was my dream school, so I was really fortunate to get in,” said Marianne Bonnano. “I’ve had a fantastic time at UNC and everyone has been so supportive.”

Growing up in her very medical family – Marianne’s uncle, Norman Edward “Ned” Sharpless, MD ’93, was director of the National Cancer Institute and a previous director at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center – Marianne has a clear sense of the path that others helped pave.

“My class was slightly more women than men, maybe 51 or 52%, but it’s hard to really appreciate that until you look at the generations before you. My grandmother was one of two women in her class, and for my mom’s era, even then it wasn’t equal. I feel like I have a lot of opportunities because of people like my mom and grandmother.”

Marianne is poised to push boundaries, pursuing a field where women are still in the minority. “Only one in four radiologists are women, and only 11% of radiologists in leadership are women,” she explained.

And she wants to work to improve the way women experience healthcare. Her motivation to train in radiology and imaging connects strongly to her mother. “My mom had breast cancer in 2017. And the way the news was delivered to her was not ideal. … I decided to do a rotation in breast imaging last summer and saw how patients’ lives changed when hearing the news that their imaging looks suspicious. That’s where I want to contribute.”

Much has changed since her grandmother’s and even her mother’s time at UNC, but the third generation of Sharpless-Bonanno women extends a strong tradition of service, training and care. We’re proud to share this wonderful milestone for UNC School of Medicine and this amazing UNC family.


4 Responses to “Three Generations in One Medical Family”

  1. Jean O. Little

    I enjoyed the article on the three of you graduating from UNC School of Medicine. I worked closely with Dr. Martha Sharpless during my years of employment at Childrens Home Society of NC. She was an outstanding pediatrician and I learned much from her. She looks great. Congratulations to a special family.

  2. Nancy Coble

    Congratulations to the three of you! What a wonderful inspiration you are to many other women!
    Wishing you many blessings in the future.

  3. June Ellis Curlott

    The Sharpless family have changed the world for the better!

  4. Constance Gordon Lynn

    This is a wonderful article. I have been so proud of the accomplishments of each generation of that side of our family. They all have been kind and motivated to reach out to where they can do the most help. It looks as if this attribute will continue. Congratulations Marianne

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