They are a rarity, indeed: Grandmother, mother, daughter - all doctors.

Even rarer: Because of the profession's relatively brief history of equal access, each woman's life experience illustrates the very different eras in which they received their training - and, in some cases, reared children.

Geraldine Prose Young, who applied to medical school in the 1940s - against the odds - was scorned as an irresponsible mother.

Nancy Young Melin, a generation later, was surrounded by many working mothers struggling to balance life and work.

As for Claire Melin, she graduates from medical school May 16 - with a class that is half women.

On a recent afternoon, the three sat in Nancy's Meadowbrook living room sharing stories that span seven decades.

Trial by fire

Growing up in the Bronx, Geraldine knew that family and education were important. But her mother also instilled a sense of self-worth.

"I was always told that I could do anything - absolutely anything," said Geraldine, now 87. "If my older brother could become a doctor, my mother said, so could I."

This was when girls were groomed to be secretaries, nurses, teachers, and most certainly, wives and mothers, so she was an anomaly when she applied to medical school after Brooklyn College in 1947.

At one interview, she was told she was too pretty to become a doctor, and would undoubtedly marry, not practice. Meanwhile, the interviewer said, she would take the place of a man. At another interview, she was told she would not be let in because she was Jewish.

Eventually, Geraldine was admitted to New York's Downstate Medical School, occupying one of three seats reserved for women - in a class of 130 men.

Irving Young, already a doctor himself, won her heart in a whirlwind courtship. Despite the obvious challenges of mixing marriage, medical school, and a pathology residency, a field then seldom chosen by women, they wed in 1948.

Geraldine was later able to transfer her residency from Kings County Hospital in New York to Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, where her husband became head of the pathology department.

Three children were born during her tenure there, which lasted from 1955 to 1989.

"Women who stayed home made it clear that they thought less of me because I was out working," says Geraldine. "But I knew in my heart that I was, first of all, a mother. I knew our kids were loved and cared for."

In fact, to allow herself more time at home, Geraldine created a pathology lab in her Elkins Park house (as was the culture of the time, her husband was not very involved in household chores) and moonlighted as a pathology expert.

Still, her workplace was not without its challenges.

Once, on her way to the operating room for tissue samples, the elevator operator refused her entrance because he didn't believe she could be a physician. After all, she was a woman - and pregnant.

She retired with her husband in 1989 at 62, but she doesn't think of herself as any kind of trailblazer.

"In the end, I just did what I wanted to, and for that, I'm grateful."

An easier path

Not everyone can say that formaldehyde smells like home, but for Nancy, now 55, that's what childhood evoked.

Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that she followed in her mother's - and father's - footsteps. But it was her mother's ability to manage home and work that truly inspired her.

Nancy chose a six-year program that combined undergraduate schooling at Lehigh University with the Medical College of Pennsylvania to get a head start on her professional life. It was tough, she allows, sometimes even overwhelming. But nobody ever said she was taking the place of a man.

Formerly Women's Medical College, the Medical College of Pennsylvania was already coed in 1979 when Young entered.

That meant there were some older male residents whose flirting sometimes crossed the line. But overall, roadblocks were few.

Nancy's later residency at Yale New Haven Hospital included a stint as chief resident in clinical pathology with a specialty in microbiology. Like her mother, Nancy would meet her husband, Jeffrey Melin, in medical school, and they married in 1981.

At first, Nancy wondered how she would balance children and work. "It was my mother who ultimately reassured me," she says. "She reminded me that she had done it, and we hadn't suffered."

Nancy learned that it would take exquisite time management, planning her schedule so she would be home as much as possible with her daughters.

"I had some household help in the early years, and my husband always has done the laundry and the dishes." Nancy stuck with the cooking because she loves it.

Eventually, she was appointed chairman of pathology and laboratory medicine for the Einstein Healthcare Network - the same position her father held - becoming the first woman to hold that title at Einstein. She's also president of the Pennsylvania Association of Pathologists and a professor of pathology at Jefferson Medical College.

All those credentials matter, but Nancy believes her best work has been raising her two daughters, who are, in her words, "good people who will make a real difference."

"That," she says, "is what makes me the most proud."

A third generation

When your grandparents and parents are all doctors, there's a certain expectation that you will take the same path.

But Claire Melin, 28, the younger daughter of Nancy and Jeffrey, was doubtful. "Maybe it was a natural resistance to the obvious that kept me from being sure I wanted medicine."

So Claire finally turned to her mother: Should she go to medical school?

"We sat down together and made a list of pluses and minuses, and the biggest minus was the time and cost involved. But my mother reminded me that the point of life was to find something that mattered to you."

So the family tradition won out. Claire will graduate next week from the University of Rochester Medical School.

Claire can't think of any obstacles she encountered - except, of course, for the relentless pace. Still, now more than ever, she understands how exceptional her mother and grandmother are.

Soon, she will be off to a residency in emergency medicine at the University of Virginia Health System with her significant other and classmate, Joshua Reuss.

Her parents' egalitarian household makes her hope that when and if she and Joshua marry, theirs will be, too.

"Josh," she says, "already does our laundry."