Women’s History Month: Pioneering Women in MedicinePosted: March 6, 2019 - By Kalena McElroy
March is Women’s History Month, a time dedicated to honoring all of the inspiring females who have made and continue to make incredible advancements to society. Since the inauguration of Women’s History Month in 1987, a special presidential proclamation has been issued to honor the extraordinary achievements of American women. Those who have been mentioned in this speech include females who have contributed to women’s health, gender equality, politics, and pioneers in male-dominated industries like sports.
Now is a great time to recognize the influential women in medicine for their significant discoveries in the field and for opening doors for future generations of young women. Here are just a few of the pioneering females who changed the course of medicine.
A distinguished physicist and chemist, Marie Curie is best known for coining the term “radioactivity” and for her discovery of the radioactive chemical elements polonium and radium. She became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics and would later go on to win a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making her the first and only female in history to win two. During WWII, Curie used her findings to design mobile x-ray machines for field hospitals and invented hollow needles filled with radon to sterilize contaminated flesh. Her daughter Irene continued Curie’s work and became the second woman to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry—the first being her mother—for her discovery of artificial radioactivity.
Dr. Apgar graduated fourth in her class at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she would later become the first female full-time professor. Her research focused on the effects of anesthesia during labor (obstetric anesthesia) and she founded the field of neonatology. In the early 1950’s, Dr. Apgar developed an evaluation to quickly assess the vitality of newborns which is still used today. Babies are given the Apgar test one minute and five minutes after birth to see how well they are adjusting to life outside the womb and to identify life threatening issues like asphyxia, neurological damage, or the need for resuscitation.
By figuring out a new way to develop drugs, Elion and her team created many revolutionary medications to treat leukemia, AIDS, meningitis, herpes, gout, malaria, autoimmune disorders, and others. Her team also developed the first immunosuppressive drug that reduced rejection rates of organ transplants. Elion holds an impressive 45 medical patents and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her advancements in the field.
King is an accomplished geneticist responsible for discovering that mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are linked to breast and ovarian cancer, dispelling the notion at the time that cancer was viral. Her gene identification technique revolutionized the study of complex human diseases. In addition to cancer, she also studied how schizophrenia and hearing loss were influenced by genetics and determined that humans and chimpanzees are 99% genetically similar. She also assisted in human rights projects where she identified deceased and missing persons through dental genetics and other techniques in countries around the world and for the United Nations.
Barton was nicknamed the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her dedicated support to troops during the U.S. Civil War. This wartime experience drove her to establish the first tracking service for missing persons in disaster zones, which is still an important aspect of the American Red Cross today. After learning of the Red Cross while on vacation in Switzerland, Barton was intent on bringing the international non-profit to the states. She founded the American Red Cross in 1881, where she served as president for 23 years. In 2018 the disaster relief organization vaccinated 195 million children globally and collected blood and platelets from nearly 2.7 million donors.
Although there is still a glass ceiling for women in the STEM and medical fields, more women than men enrolled in U.S. medical schools in 2017 for the first time in history. Women are continuing to make impactful strides in medicine. The Demandforce team would like to thank all of the tenacious medical researchers, and physicians who have opened doors for future generations.