History of the Joan H. Marks
Graduate Program in Human Genetics


Assistant Director of Human Genetics

E-mail Janelle


After the discovery of the DNA structure, great breakthroughs were made in identifying diseases with genetic origins. This brought a new challenge to the medical profession: how should physicians impart this knowledge to patients, and how would patients use this new data?

Melissa Richter, a Sarah Lawrence graduate who taught psychology and biology before becoming director of the College's Center for Continuing Education, saw a great opportunity for a new type of professional, one conversant with the manifestation of genetic diseases along with techniques of psychological support.

In 1968, Richter formally proposed that Sarah Lawrence College create a master’s-level program for genetic counselors, and the first students were accepted for the fall 1969 semester.

Through the Years: Our History


  • 1969: The idea for the program (which was under discussion but not in development at the time) received an unexpected boost when an article about genetic counseling in the New York Times Magazine incorrectly stated that Sarah Lawrence College would be establishing a genetic counseling program. Although genetic counseling received a significant amount of skepticism, its supporters held strong. The College was inundated with requests and rushed to establish the program, accepting the first students in the fall of 1969.
  • 1971: The first eight students completed the program. Upon graduation, six of the graduates accepted positions as genetic counselors. The American Journal of Human Genetics referred to the program as “pioneering in the establishment of curricula dealing with the biologic, social, and psychologic aspects of genetic counseling and the graduates of the program could function effectively under the supervision of fully trained medical geneticists.”
  • 1973: Joan Marks became director of the program. Marks, who was trained as a psychiatric social worker, believed genetic counselors could perform valuable functions beyond assisting physicians and gathering data. She was instrumental in evolving the program to include a stronger focus on the emotional aspects of genetics. That year, a seminar in genetic counseling was developed and taught by psychotherapist Dr. Steven Firestein, and an external Advisory Board composed of medical genetic experts was formed.


  • 1981: The American Board of Medical Genetics offered the first certification exam for genetic counselors, lending greater legitimacy to the field. One quarter of the students who took the test first took an intensive review course at Sarah Lawrence.
  • 1982: Of the 389 trained genetic counselors nationwide, 215 received their education at Sarah Lawrence College.
  • 1988: The program continued to evolve to meet the needs of modern genetics counseling. New courses, workshops, and means of academic evaluation were added.
  • 1989: The Sarah Lawrence Human Genetics program reported a 100 percent employment rate for graduates.
  • 1991-1995: The number of applicants to the program increased 58 percent.
  • 1997: Sarah Lawrence Human Genetics program became the first program to be accredited by the American Board of Genetic Counseling.
  • 1998: Joan Marks retired and was succeeded by Caroline Lieber, M.S.


Since its inception, Sarah Lawrence College's graduate program in Human Genetics has graduated more than 1000 students—more than any other program. The program remains the largest in the United States.

On February 1, 2014, Anne Greb took the helm as program director after the retirement of Caroline Lieber.

In 2015, the program welcomed 31 students—the largest class ever to join the Sarah Lawrence genetic counseling community. Our ability to educate this class is a testament to the program’s experiences and resources.

As the profession grows, the program continues to be the leader who establishes how to best prepare graduates for the evolving and expanding roles of genetic counselors. To carry out this mission, we rely on our large and devoted network of health care professionals. Our program is well positioned to continue to make significant contributions to the genetic counseling profession for years to come.