Women’s Day 2017: 10 women who defined modern medicine

Medicine is a field in which many women have excelled and pioneered. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we would like to pay tribute to ten incredible, revolutionary women who helped create medicine as we know it. Some made groundbreaking discoveries in laboratories, others made history in the field, became advocates for public health issues and one changed the future of medical research without her knowledge.

Marie Curie: the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics and in Chemistry, grew up poor and had no access to the university in 19th century Poland, went on to become a professor in Paris and received two Nobel Prizes. Her discovery of radium and polonium was the basis of radiation, which has many applications in diagnosis and treatment nowadays.

Gerty Cori: the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine, as she discovered the metabolism of carbohydrates (Cori circle) together with her husband.

Rosalind Franklin: contributed to the discovery of the double helix model of DNA making observations with X-ray crystallography.

Gertrude Belle Ellion: inventor of the first medication used for the treatment of leukemia, the first immune-suppressive agent for organ transplant, as well as Acyclovir, widely used for the treatment of herpes

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow: invented radio-immunoassay, the basis of serological tests. RIA allows blood-donators to be screened for hepatitis and HIV and is used to diagnose various hormone- and enzyme-related disorders.

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi- virologist, Nobel laureate, contributed to the discovery of HIV.

Grethe Rask: field doctor and humanitarian. She established and managed field hospitals in Congo, and is thought to be one of the first Europeans to die of AIDS.

Florence Nightingale: field nurse, who revolutionized nursing, reported the appalling condition of field hospitals during the Crimean War and initiated a reform.

Henrietta Lacks: an African American cervical cancer patient, whose tumor cells were cultivated, resulting in the HeLa cell line, widely used in medical research.

Lady Mary Wortley Montague: wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. She introduced the practice of variolation (precursor to vaccination) in Europe after witnessing its effectiveness in Turkey.

Dishonorable mentions

Dr James Watson: a notorious sexist and racist, rumored to have used part of Rosalind Franklin’s work without her permission. His sexist, patronizing attitude towards her is well-known. In his 1968 book “The Double Helix” he refers to Franklin as “Rosy” and makes the following remarks: “Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive, and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not.”

Sir Tim Hunt: a Nobel Prize winner, who shared his sexist opinion of female scientists less than two years ago, causing significant backlash from the scientific community that lead to the professor’s resignation. His statements about female scientists: “3 things happen when they’re in the lab; you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”, “I’m in favor of single-sex labs”

Despite the invaluable contribution of women to medicine and the constant progress in gender equality, the gender gap in science remains a reality in today’s Europe. Fortunately, the gap is less pronounced in younger scientists and in the field of health sciences.

Here you can find She Figures, a detailed report of women’s participation in research and academia, published by the European Comission: https://ec.europa.eu/research/swafs/pdf/pub_gender_equality/she_figures_2015-final.pdf

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