In one of her earliest and most influential essays, “Training for Uncertainty” (1957), Professor Fox took up a subject that she would revisit throughout her career, the idea that the more sophisticated medicine became, the more questions it raised.
“‘Uncertainty’ — if there’s something to be chiseled on my tombstone, that would be it,” she told the Penn Arts & Sciences Alumni Newsletter in 2002.
Renée Claire Fox was born on Feb. 15, 1928, in Manhattan. Her father, Fred, founded P.F. Fox & Co. Investment Securities, and her mother, Henrietta (Gold) Fox, encouraged her educational progress, although she herself had only a primary-school education.
During the summer after her freshman year at Smith College, she began feeling ill, and her doctor diagnosed her symptoms as polio. She never forgot the date: Aug. 15, 1945, otherwise known as V-J Day, when Japan surrendered, ending World War II.
“From my bed in our apartment,” she wrote, “through the open windows, I could hear the jubilant crowds in the street.”
Polio is highly contagious, and finding a hospital that would accept her took some doing. She was taken to Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, which served mostly Black patients. Her polio was severe, affecting her swallowing and breathing, which she could barely do by the time she was hospitalized.
In her memoir, Professor Fox paid tribute to a Black nurse who got her through the first night. “I do not know her name,” she wrote. “But I do know that I survived that night because she put her head beside mine on the pillow where I lay, and breathed every breath with me.”