By S.I. Rosenbaum

Noel Williams, MD, and Emma Meagher, MD
Noel Williams, MD, and Emma Meagher, MD

Graduates of the Perelman School of Medicine over the past 30 years often remember a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted pharmacology professor named Emma Meagher, MD. They might also have been surgery clerkship students with bariatric surgeon Noel Williams, MD. But most students have never realized that, despite different last names and different specialties, Meagher and Williams are two halves of an extraordinary partnership.

This past year, Williams, the medical director of Penn Medicine Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, was honored by their joint alma mater, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, with an Honorary Fellowship—the highest honor the college bestows. At the same time, he and Meagher, now senior vice dean of clinical and translational research in the Perelman School of Medicine and vice president for clinical research at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, were celebrating another celebratory milestone: their thirty-fifth year of marriage.

“In addition to being husband and wife, parents and best friends,” Williams said, “we have been committed partners in the pursuit of our careers.”

A medical meet-cute from across the Atlantic 

Noel Williams and Emma Meagher on their wedding day in 1988

Williams and Meagher met at RCSI in a manner that is surprisingly common for medical types: in an anatomy lab. Despite the odor of paraffin permeating the room, Meagher, a first-year medical student, took one look at her teaching assistant, and was smitten.

Both were the children of doctors, but they grew up an ocean apart. Born in Jamaica, Williams attended medical school at RCSI in Dublin like his father and two uncles before him. He was a surgical trainee at the time he met Meagher. She, along with five of her seven siblings, was inspired to enter medicine by her father, a well-known OBGYN in Dublin.

The couple married after Meagher completed her internship year in Dublin, and for a brief stint, she joined Williams in Philadelphia where he was then halfway through a postdoctoral research fellowship.

A leap of faith back across the pond 

After returning to Dublin, they might have stayed forever. Over a busy five-year period, they both completed their clinical training and had four children. “Life was a blur,” Meagher said.

Then in 1994, Meagher's boss, Garret A. FitzGerald, MD, was recruited to Penn and invited Meagher to join his team as an instructor in Medicine. The Department of Surgery offered Williams, their former research fellow, a place in their residency program.

It was an exciting professional opportunity, but there would be sacrifices. They were ensconced in the same neighborhood as Meagher’s parents and siblings, and Williams would need to complete an additional three years of residency training.

Williams recalled how they agonized over the choice: “Go to sleep: ‘We’re going.’ Wake at three in the morning: ‘We can’t leave our country and our family.’ Wake at 6: ‘We’ve got to go.’”

“It was far and away the most difficult decision we’ve ever made,” Meagher said. “I was more on the side of, ‘It will work out; we don't have all the answers, but it will work out,’” she recalled. “I think blind faith, for me, was essential.”

The family finally made the monumental leap in June 1994.

Celebrating career successes 

At first, without a support network, the burden of childrearing fell on Meagher. “We had no family support, no community, everything was foreign, and it was incredibly lonely,” she said. “I was the primary caregiver; he was absent a lot by necessity, his surgical training was gruesome … It also meant that the beginning of my career was slower. I had to figure out how to survive in academics and constantly catch up on lost academic time.”

As the kids grew older, Meagher revved up her own career to new heights. She not only survived, but thrived. In her current clinical research leadership roles that she has held for more than a decade, Meagher sets the strategy for Penn Medicine’s clinical research enterprise. She has overseen the growth of clinical research support that helps Penn scientists successfully execute their clinical and translational research programs and efficiently translate their discoveries into FDA-approved therapies.

Williams has had an accomplished career at Penn of his own. He leads one of the largest and most successful academic programs in bariatric surgery in the U.S. He introduced robotic bariatric surgery at Penn almost 20 years ago, played a critical role in the education of several generations of surgical residents, and launched the surgical careers of numerous international medical graduates as the director of the Preliminary Surgery Residency Program.  

“I think we’ve celebrated and experienced enormous joy with each other’s successes,” she said. “He’s incredibly proud of me and I of him. That has been instrumental to our career progression, and I think it has been also hugely important for our kids growing up to have witnessed that pride.”

As each has grown in their career and become, in different ways, a fixture at Penn Medicine, it has brought them even closer together, Meagher said.

“It’s lovely to work in the same place and we understand the privilege it is to just be a part of this community,” she said. “Penn is in our blood. We feel very fortunate. We’re both absolute institutionalists at heart. Cheering for the same winning team is a great feeling.”

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