Ranney was born in New York, where her parents ran a dairy farm. She attended a one-room school as a child, and Barnard College. She initially faced barriers to her continuing a medical education at Columbia, based on her gender, but policy changes during World War II allowed for her admission to the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.
Ranney was a professor at Harvard Medical School. She was also a staff physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She was the first woman to serve as president of the Association of American Physicians, and of the American Society of Hematology. She was also one of the first women to be admitted to the American Society for Clinical Investigation. Her research on hemoglobin started in 1953. She was the first to use paper electropheresis for separating human hemoglobins, work which helped in understanding the inheritance of sickle-cell disease. In 1960 she co-founded the heredity clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Ranney was a faculty member and the first female head of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. In 1973, she was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1975.
- Denise Gellene (April 14, 2010). "Helen Ranney, Pioneer in Sickle Cell Research, Dies at 89". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 November 2012.
- H. Franklin Bunn, "Helen Margaret Ranney: A Woman of Many Firsts" The Hematologist 5(2)(March-April 2008).
- "Biography: Dr. Helen M. Ranney". Changing the face of medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. Retrieved 30 November 2012.
- "Helen M. Ranney". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
- "Directory: IOM Member - Helen M. Ranney, M.D.". Institute of Medicine. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
- "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter R" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 29, 2014.
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