Valentina Davidovna Suntzeff was born on February 28, 1891 in Kazan, Russia. She began studying medicine in 1911 at the Women's Medical Institute in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). After her second year of medical school, she married Alexander Suntzeff, a mechanical engineering student. Despite taking a year off from school following the birth of her daughter Ludmilla, Suntziff was able to graduate in 1917.
Upon graduation, the Suntzeffs moved to Perm, Russia where she found her first job working in a hospital at an ammunition plant. During World War I, Suntzeff worked as a physician in the Russian Army and she served as the Physician-in-Chief of an isolation hospital for infectious diseases. Suntzeff continued living in Perm until the violent Bolshevik Revolution forced her family to evacuate the city. In August 1920, the Suntzeffs emigrated to Manchuria where she worked as a physician at the Central Hospital in Harbin, China. The Suntzeffs spent three years waiting for the situation in their home country to improve. With little hope of ever being able to return to a normal life in Russia, the Suntzeffs made the decision to move to the United States in 1923. As Suntzeff explains in her autobiography, "If you asked me why we decided to go to the United States, the answer is the pursuit of individual freedom which did not exist in Russia either before or after the Revolution."
In 1923, Suntzeff and her family sailed to Seattle having only $12.00 in their possession. Eventually settling in San Francisco, neither Suntzeff nor her husband could find work in their chosen fields. Instead of continuing her medical career, Suntzeff was forced to work at a sewing factory to make ends meet. After spending four years in San Francisco, Suntzeff's husband was finally able to find a job as a mechanical engineer at a match factory in St. Louis. Suntzeff however continued to struggle with finding work as a physician. In her autobiography, she attributes this problem to her "broken English and being a woman."
Finally in 1930, after being out of the medical field for nearly eight years, Suntzeff accepted a job as a volunteer researcher in the Pathology Department of the Washington University School of Medicine. After only three months working as a volunteer, she joined the staff as a Research Assistant in Pathology. In 1941, Suntzeff transferred to the Department of Anatomy when she became a Research Associate in Cancer Research, and in 1958, a Research Associate Professor. Suntzeff and her colleagues researched cancer of the skin. Her collaboration with biochemist Christopher Carruthers led to their discovery of a fundamental difference between the chemical composition of cancerous and normal tissues.
Suntzeff retired as Research Associate Professor Emeritus and Lecturer in Anatomy in 1960, but she continued to carry on cancer research for another 15 years. During her career, she authored or co-authored over 90 scientific publications.