Women have for a long time been under represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and manufacturing (STEM) however, one area stands apart with greater equality is life sciences. According to the featured graph by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), women occupy more than half of life sciences jobs in the USA, including 50.1% of biological scientists and 52.8% of medical scientists.
Before the 19th century, women had very little to do with the realms of science and medicine, although their involvement has been noted throughout history. Usually, a woman’s role was strictly limited to nursing or midwifery, but there are some rare exceptions in history tracing back to ancient times. The mid-1850s marked a turning point in society’s view towards women working in science and medicine, although they would still struggle to be seen as equals for the next hundred or so years. Here is ProClinical’s list of some of history’s most influential women in life sciences and their extraordinary achievements and contributions over the past 150 years.
Metrodora (c. 200-400 AD)
Metrodora, a Greek female physician, wrote On the Diseases and Cures of Women, a study of gynaecology. Her work did not include information on obstetrics, the study of childbirth, and instead investigated pathology which is the study of disease. This was extremely rare in a time when women were almost soley concerned with midwifery. Metrodora was heavily influenced by the work of Greek physician Hippocrates, and her work was referenced several times by physicians in the years following.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)
British-born Elizabeth Blackwell is best known as the first woman to earn an medical degree (MD) in the US. She was raised in a forward-thinking, socially active family. Her father was a passionate advocate for the abolition of slavery, and her siblings went on to campaign for women’s rights. After facing rejection from several universities, Blackwell was finally accepted to Geneva Medical College in 1847. She received hostility from her fellow students at first, eventually earning their respect and graduating first in her class in 1849. In 1857, she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children along with her sister, Dr Emily Blackwell (the third woman to earn an MD) and Dr Marie Zakrzewska. During her career, she wrote the inspirational book Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Polish mathematician and scientist Marie Curie collaborated with her husband, Pierre Curie, to discover two chemical elements in the periodic table: polonium and radium. This important work observed that there was a relationship between radioactivity and the heavy elements of the periodic table, and led to much advancement in medicine. Most notably, it led the way to the development of the x-ray, which remains a important diagnostic device today. Curie earned a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, and yet another in Chemistry in 1911, the first and only woman to have been honoured twice. Marie Curie was also an advocate for women’s ability to balance intellectual study with a happy, fulfilling domestic life.
Gerty Cori (1896-1957)
Another Nobel Prize winner, Gerty Cori, earned the prestigious award for her work in medicine/physiology in 1947. Cori was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in this category. She worked with her husband, Carl Ferdinand Cori, with whom she shared an interest in preclinical science, to prove vital concepts in genetics. Their work led to the discovery that an enzyme deficiency could be responsible for metabolism disorders. They also carried out multiple studies on the action of hormones, focusing on the pituitary gland. Over her lifetime, Gerty won several other awards in recognition for her contributions to science and earned honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Boston University, Smith College, Yale, Columbia and Rochester between 1948 and 1955.
Virginia Apgar (1909-1974)
Virginia Apgar is famous for her invention of the Apgar score, a vital test that was quickly adopted by doctors to test whether newborn babies required urgent medical attention. The Apgar score was responsible for reducing infant mortality rates considerably and helped to discover a way of detecting birth defects as soon as possible. Apgar was the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999)
American chemist Gertrude B Elion is recognised for her discovery of Purinethol, the first pivotal drug in treating leukaemia. Coming from a scientific background, Elion was inspired to pursue medicine when her grandfather passed away from cancer when she was 15 and became dedicated to discovering a cure for the disease. In her lifetime, she was responsible for developing 45 treatments that helped the immune system to fight cancer, a colossal achievement that earned her the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
British scientist Rosalind Franklin is best known for her work in understanding the structure of DNA, using x-ray photographs to solve its complexities. She also did important work on the tobacco mosaic virus and polio virus. Franklin had a passion for science from an early age and decided to become a scientist at the age of 15. She fought against her father’s reluctance to let her undertake higher education and graduated from Cambridge University in 1941. She worked for many years as a first-rate scientist until her untimely death from cancer in 1958.
Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011)
Rosalyn Yalow received the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1977 for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones, which are used to measure hormones in the blood. Yalow’s diagnostic technique was so precise that it was used to scan blood donations for infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. This was fundamental in ensuring life-saving blood transfusions were safe and effective. Later, the method allowed scientists to prove that type-2 diabetes is caused by the body not being able to use insulin properly.
Patricia Goldman-Rakic (1937-2003)
Neuroscientist Patricia Goldman-Rakic is recognised for her studies of the brain, particularly, the frontal lobes and how it relates to memory. She gained her bachelor’s degree in Neurology from Vassar in 1959, and then her doctorate from the University of California in Developmental Psychology in 1963. Her multidisciplinary research significantly contributed to the understanding of neurological diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Goldman-Rakic’s study of dopamine and its effects on the brain is eseential to modern day understanding of conditions such as schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Francoise Barré-Sinoussi (born 1947)
Parisian scientist Francoise Barré-Sinoussi is a celebrated for her discovery of HIV as the cause of the immunodeficiency disease, AIDS. In 2008, Barré, along with Luc Montaigner, discovered that the HIV retrovirus attacked lymphocytes, a blood cell that plays an important role in the body’s immune system. Her vital work has helped millions who are living with the disease and has paved the way to finding a cure for HIV.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of notable women in science and medicine. Many women have proved crucial in the discovery and treatment of diseases that have saved and improved the lives of millions across the centuries. STEM Women has recognised several other important women in life sciences, including Dr Ariel Hollindshed (born 1930) who has developed vaccines for several types of cancer, and Dr Mildred Dresselhauss (1888-1983), a pioneer of nanotechnology and nanoengineering. See the full list here.
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