Wayne House Finley (1927- ) and Sara Crews Finley (1930–2013) were pioneers in the field of medical genetics, co-founding the University of Alabama at Birmingham‘s Laboratory of Medical Genetics, the first such center in the southeastern United States. Their work provided research data and counseling that provided patients and their families from throughout the Southeast with information on genetic conditions and the likelihood of genetic problems in future offspring.
Wayne and Sara Finley Wayne was born on April 7, 1927, at Goodwater, Coosa County, to Byron Bruce and Lucille House Finley. He was educated in the county schools and graduated from Bibb Graves High School in Millerville, Clay County, in 1943. He attended the State Teachers College (now Jacksonville State University) in Jacksonville, Calhoun County, but interrupted his education in 1945-46 to serve in the U.S. Army Infantry’s occupation forces in Germany following its defeat in World War II. Finley then returned to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education in 1947. Following his active service in the military, he entered the University of Alabama (UA), where he received a master’s degree, also in secondary education in 1950. In 1951, he resumed active duty as an officer on the staff and faculty of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps School at Fort McClellan.
Sara Crews was born in Lineville, Clay County, on February 26, 1930, to Jesse B. and Jessie Matthews Crews. She was educated in the county schools and graduated from Lineville High School in 1947 and then entered UA, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in arts and sciences in 1951. Upon graduating, Sara was admitted to the MD program of the Medical College of Alabama (now the University of Alabama School of Medicine, UASOM), being one of the earliest women admitted to the school.
Wayne and Sara met at UA and were married on July 6, 1952. The couple would continue their educations during the 1950s. Wayne completed a master’s degree in biochemistry in 1955 and a PhD in biochemistry in 1958, both at the UA Birmingham campus (now the University of Alabama at Birmingham, UAB). He was then admitted to the MD program at the Medical College of Alabama, graduating in 1960. Throughout his educational years, he remained in military service as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, serving until 1974. In 1961, he completed an internship in pediatrics at the Jefferson-Hillman Hospital and Clinics, which was part of the Medical College of Alabama. Sara completed her MD degree in 1955, served an internship at Lloyd Noland Hospital in Birmingham in 1955-56, and did a National Institutes of Health Fellowship in pediatrics at UASOM in 1956-59.
Soon after Sara completed her National Institutes of Health fellowship in 1959, the couple both accepted faculty positions at UASOM. Shortly thereafter, Joseph Volker, president of UAB, urged them to apply for NIH-sponsored traineeships in medical genetics at the Institute for Medical Genetics at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. Since the mid-1940s, scientists had been making significant strides (beginning with the discovery in 1956 that each person normally has 46 chromosomes) in understanding human genetics, including the cultivation of human cells and the demonstration of the association between chromosome aberrations and abnormal development and function. Uppsala’s Jan Böök, director of the institute and an internationally known medical geneticist, was a leader in this new field of medical genetics, and so with their two young children in tow, the Finleys travelled to Sweden and spent a year studying under him.
Finley Lab at UAB Upon returning to Birmingham and UASOM in 1962, the Finleys established the first medical genetics program in the Southeast. Recognizing the valuable outcome of this work, UASOM and the UA School of Dentistry provided financial support, with additional support coming from federal grants and private foundations. The program, housed in the Department of Pediatrics in the Lyons-Harrison Building, consisted of genetics and genetic counseling clinics and maintained several specialized laboratories for diagnosing suspected genetic disorders. Over the years, the Medical Genetics Clinic became a national reference laboratory and provided care to thousands of patients and counseled thousands of parents about juvenile genetic problems and the likelihood of such problems in subsequent children. These clinics soon became and continued over the decades to be the busiest in the Southeast.
In addition to providing services to patients and families, the Finleys also trained dozens of students in this field of clinical study. They would oversee the development of this regional research, training, and service program in medical genetics for 35 years and train both medical genetics professionals and physicians in the use of medical genetics information to advise patients and families.
The Finleys were also active in publishing the findings of their work. As a team and in coordination with graduate students and staff, the Finleys produced 247 publications, including journal articles, book chapters, and biographical sketches. They were also involved in advancing medical genetics nationally as a field of medical study. The UAB Medical Genetics Program hosted several meetings in support of that effort and sponsored more than one hundred individuals to participate in professional meetings and give presentations to and interact with the program’s graduate students. These efforts had an enormous impact on those physicians as well as others in Alabama and elsewhere in the Southeast.
The Finleys were members of numerous professional organizations, including the American Society of Human Genetics, the American College of Medical Genetics (Founding Fellows), and the National Advisory Research Resources Council of the National Institutes of Health. Wayne served as chairman of Medical Student Research Day at UAB for 10 years and as chairman of the Reynolds Historical Library Associates Steering Committee for 25 years. Sara was the first woman to serve as president of both the UA Medical Alumni Association and the Jefferson County Medical Society. She was also a member of the UA President’s Cabinet for more than 10 years.
In recognition of their work as a team, the couple also received many joint honors including establishment by UAB of the Finley-Compass Bank Conference Center, and establishment by the UA Board of Trustees of the Wayne H. and Sara Crews Finley Chair in Medical Genetics. A portrait of them is located in the Genetics Conference Center. Both Finleys retired in 1996. Sara died on February 20, 2013. In 2014, the Finley family endowed the Sara Crews Finley, MD, Leadership Scholars Program in the UASOM to support selected students in the program as well as the Reynolds Historical Library, which has been renamed the Reynolds-Finley Historical Library. In 2017, Sara Finley was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.
Buchanan, Charles. “The Passing of Pioneers.” UAB Medicine 39 (Summer 2013): 20.
McWilliams, Tennant S. New Lights in the Valley: The Emergence of UAB. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.
Shepard, Bob. “Sara Finley, Pioneering UAB Geneticist, Dies at 82.” UAB News, February 20, 2013;