Brain Byte

Black History Is: Audrey Shields Penn

  • Published28 Feb 2024
  • Author Cyrenna Cooper
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Audrey Shields Penn is the first African American woman to serve as an acting director of an Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

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Audrey S. Penn brain byte
Design A. Tong

Audrey Shields Penn is the first African American woman to become acting director of one of the institutes comprising the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After earning her medical degree from Columbia University in 1960, Penn studied biochemistry, focusing on muscle proteins related to muscle diseases, namely myasthenia gravis. In 1972, she became an associate professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, and ten years later, she became a professor of neurology at Columbia University. In 1990, Penn was elected vice president of the American Neurological Association and became the association’s first woman president in 1994.

A year later, Penn became the deputy director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes (NINDS), where she served until 2007. She worked with the NINDS director in program planning, allocating the Institute's budget, and overseeing NINDS’ staff of scientists, physician-scientists, and administrators. She also helped establish a Specialized Neuroscience Research Program for minorities in neuroscience. During her tenure at NINDS, Penn became the first African American woman to serve as a director of an Institute of NIH at the NINDS, acting from January 1998 to July 1998 and again from February 2001 to August 2003. In 2007, Penn retired as deputy director of NINDS and moved to the Office of Minority Health and Research. Since her retirement, she has served as a special advisor to the NINDS director.

Design by Adrienne Tong.



Audrey S. Penn. (2023). National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Audrey S. Penn. (2023, May 17). Wikipedia.

Audrey S. Penn Biography. (n.d.) American Neurological Association (ANA). Retrieved February 27, 2024, from

Audrey Shields Penn. (2018). Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Women in Science and Engineering.

Dr. Audrey Shields Penn, PhD. (2021, April 19). Association for Women in Science. 

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