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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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Imogene Gollinger: First Female Field Inspector

Imogene Gollinger (245px)The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discriminatory hiring practices based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. President Johnson, in signing the historic legislation, announced that the federal government would “lead” rather than “follow” the private sector in recruiting and hiring women. In August, 1965, FDA’s Food and Drug Review announced that the agency had hired its first “woman” inspector, Mrs. Imogene Gollinger. A picture accompanying the article showed her being sworn in by New York’s District Director with FDA Commissioner George Larrick solemnly witnessing the historic first.

At the time she was hired in June 1965, she was 20 years old, with a B. A. from New York University. She had been a high school science teacher but was looking for a new opportunity while her husband finished medical school at NYU. Noting she was considered a “quality candidate” under Civil Service regulations because of her strong academic record, Larrick made it clear that she would be trained in the same fashion as her colleagues and that her first year would teach her inspection techniques just the way the agency’s other 778 inspectors had been trained.

In a presentation in 2000, she recalled that she wore white gloves and a hat to work. Once there she was given a locker and handed a set of standard coveralls. A group of supervisors gathered in the district director’s office to examine the fit and found that the side slits were too revealing for women so, after much discussion the slits were sewn shut. Other tensions revolved around the travel required by all inspectors. “It was a different time,” she recalls. “Women just didn’t travel; going to college was revolutionary; and having a career unheard of.” She began her career by putting a rose on her desk and buying a shopping cart to carry her heavy bag of inspector’s equipment. While the men made fun of the cart at first, she soon noticed that many of them had followed her lead.

Imogene Gollinger (2)
Imogene Gollinger is sworn in as the first female investigator at FDA. Although all employees take an oath of office, not many were photographed doing so with the FDA Commissioner – another “first.”
Travel was the most challenging issue facing an inspector in a culture unaccustomed to women traveling alone. She recalls an early out-of-town inspection in which the hotel manager did not want to honor her reservation, apparently concerned that she was a “lady of the evening." After showing her badge he relented, but after an 11 p.m. phone call inviting her to “come downstairs for a drink,” Imogene said she felt dismayed that her natural friendliness could be so easily misinterpreted.

She calls her job at FDA the “biggest opportunity of my life." After being the first woman sent for specialized training in pharmacy inspections at Rhode Island University , the Naragansett Times cited her selection as “another example of the career opportunities opening up for women.”  Well trained, she was hired by industry a few years later and spent the rest of her career in the food and drug field.