Women’s History Month in the United States, as designated in 1987 by the US Congress, occurs in March each year “in recognition of women’s many accomplishments throughout history…consistently overlooked and undervalued”. It can be traced back all the way to the early twentieth century, having been nurtured by the growth of the movement for equality, civil and political rights in Europe surrounding the Russian revolution. This year, the campaign theme of International Women’s Day on March 8 is #BreakTheBias, which optimizes the drive toward gender equality.
Women’s History in Medicine
There is so much to write about a wide subject like how women have contributed to society over the past 150 years. Here, in our first article honoring Women’s History Month, we are trying to highlight some of the very important contributions that an elite band of women have contributed towards the improvement of health for the whole world. We have picked out some of the most interesting women and while hundreds more could just as easily have been included we do feel that something special in each one of the ones below warrants their inclusion in our first foray.
The Early Pathfinders
Until the latter half of the 19th century, women were simply unable to attend universities that trained doctors or scientists and even when they did manage to qualify, they were unable to find work owing to the prevailing gender bias that was the norm in Western countries.
We have chosen our subjects not simply because they managed to overcome the barriers against women, but because their contributions were at least as significant, and in some cases even greater, than the most famous men whose names are listed in the annals of great doctors and medical scientists.
Marie Curie (b 1867 – d 1934)
Marie Curie , together with her husband and fellow scientist Pierre Curie conducted pioneering research in chemistry, discovering the elements radium and polonium and developing the first understanding of radioactivity (a term she invented). Their work led to the development of x-rays, allowing for the use of internal imagery in diagnosis, drastically reducing the need for exploratory surgery, and leading eventually to radiation therapy in the treatment of cancer.
Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, awarded to her in 1903 for Physics. She was the first person (and remains the only woman) to win the Nobel Prize twice, having been awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, cited for “the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”. She remains the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in different scientific fields.
It is difficult to overstate the impact that Marie Curie’s work has had on modern medicine. Diagnosis with x-rays is a foundation stone of all areas of medicine. As well, her work with radioactivity is one of the two most critical theoretical bases on which current cancer therapy is based.
The Curie Institute in Paris, which she founded in 1920, is still a premier cancer research facility today.
Margaret Higgins Sanger (b 1879 – d 1966)
Margaret Sanger was a nurse who is famous for being the primary advocate of safe and effective birth control in the US. Despite fierce and persistent opposition from scientific bodies as well as conservative politicians and church leaders, she persisted in promoting the rights of women to control their own bodies and have access to proper birth control methods and help. In 1916, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. She established the American Birth Control League that eventually evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Gerty Cori (b 1896 – d 1957)
Gerty Cori, together with her husband Carl and physiologist Bernardo Houssay, is credited with discovering how muscle tissue stores energy via the breakdown of glycogen into lactic acid. This important pattern is known as the Cori cycle, and the catalyzing compound is called the Cori ester.
She and her husband earned the Nobel Prize in medicine/physiology in 1947, and she was the first woman to win the prize in this category.
The Twentieth Century Stars
Virginia Apgar (b 1909 – d 1974)
The Apgar Score developed by Virginia Apgar as a way to quickly assess the health of an infant immediately after birth in order to combat infant mortality. It is used to determine the health of newborns in hospitals around the world. The Apgar Score methodology is still in use in most obstetrical hospitals worldwide and has contributed to the almost 50% decline in neonatal morbidity since 1990.
Gertrude Elion (b 1918 – d 1999)
Gertrude Elion was an American pharmacologist and biochemist who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the development of new drugs by means of a revolutionary methodology known as rational drug design, along with George Hitchings and James Black.
Gertrude Elion’s career typifies the barriers that academic institutions and the pharmaceutical industry put up against women in medicine and science until the later years of the century. Only after many years working was she able to get a position at Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company, working in George Hitchings’ laboratory. Together they developed a revolutionary way to develop the drugs by deliberately mimicking natural compounds.
Elion synthesized the anti-cancer drugs thioguanine and mercaptopurine as well as creation of the AIDS drug azidothymidine that prevents the spread of the disease to the unborn fetus, as well as acyclovir, the first successful antiviral drug used in the treatment of herpes.
Rosalind Franklin (b 1920 – d 1958)
If it wasn’t for a stroke of horrible misfortune, Rosalin Franklin would today be more famous than almost anyone else relating to the discovery of DNA.
Rosalind Franklin graduated in 1941 with a PhD from Cambridge in 1945. She became an accomplished X-ray crystallographer and discovered the key properties of DNA. She led pioneering work on the molecular structures of tobacco viruses, but on the day before she was to unveil the findings, she died of ovarian cancer aged just 37.
Her crystallography enabled her co-workers Crick, Watson and Wilkins to produce the final analysis of the now-famous “double-helix” structure of DNA, the core of all understanding of genetics today. Today the names of Crick and Watson come to mind whenever DNA is written about. In contrast, without her work, they quite possibly would never have reached the final answers for which they are famous.
The Current Generation
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (b 1921 – d 2011)
Rosalyn Yalow graduated with a PhD in physics in 1945 and was employed as the only woman in a department of 400 men at the University of Illinois.
She is remembered primarily for the work she did there in the field of radioisotopes, especially in the development of the radioimmunoassay process that allows for the measurement of tiny quantities of radioactive particles as they move through the human body. This technology is at the heart of modern non-invasive diagnostics throughout the world, in many specialities such as nuclear medicine and the treatment of cancers.
Sussman won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977, and was the first American-born woman to win a scientific Nobel prize.
Patricia Goldman-Rakic (1937-2003)
Patricia Goldman-Rakic was a neuroscientist famous for her innovative research discovering new insights into areas of functionality of the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, and how these relate to memory.
She has brought focus onto specific conditions such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and schizophrenia, through her studies of dopamine and its effects on the neurochemical pathways. Before her, scientists thought that analysis of cognitive functions was beyond the scope of scientific study, but she demonstrated that the same methods used to study the sensory cortices could be applied in higher cortices.
Alisha Sara Kramer (born 1990)
Alisha Sara Kramer is an obstetrician and gynecologist who is highly active in promoting women’s health issues. She is married to Thomas Ossoff, the senior US Senator for Georgia. After graduating, she worked for four years in Washington, DC, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she assisted in research on HIV/AIDS, women’s health, and tuberculosis.
In 2019, she testified against the introduction of new abortion legislation in Georgia – the “Georgia Heartbeat bill” that sought to prevent physicians from performing abortions beyond six weeks, except in particular situations.
Women’s History Month is a marker of the immense progress that has been made in ensuring justice and gender equality for women in all fields of life. We hope our short article outlining how much women have been able to contribute to the vital area of health will illustrate how, despite the obstacles and barriers that were in place in the past century, will illustrate that many outstanding women nevertheless made terrific contributions to our quality of life.