Developments in health and medicine move fast. So fast, that it’s often hard to appreciate those responsible for life-changing breakthroughs.
Women in particular have had a pretty hard time getting their scientific achievements recognised, with contributions being historically overlooked, credited to male colleagues, or ignored entirely.
And this stigma continues to the present day – women still face barriers entering the medical profession and are even criticised for ‘distracting men, falling in love with them, and crying when criticised’ once they actually get there.
This International Women’s Day, we take a look at some of the remarkable achievements women have made in medicine, and prove that Marie Curie shouldn’t be the only female household name in medical history.
Sophia Jex-Blake (1840 – 1912)
Sophia Jex-Blake pursued a career in medicine at a time when women were completely barred from the profession. With enduring determination, she became the first practising female doctor in Scotland and led the campaign to secure female access to university education. She pioneered medical education for women and established the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874.
Nettie Stevens (1861 – 1912)
Nettie Stevens made the discovery of XY chromosomes in men and XX chromosomes in women. She revealed that sex determination is linked to an organisms’ genetics, rather than other factors, such as environment. At the time, her achievement was largely dismissed and erroneously attributed to a male geneticist.
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)
Dorothy Hodgkin was one of the first scientists to use X-rays to determine molecular structures, and went on to discover the structures of insulin, penicillin and vitamin B12. Her work earned her a Nobel prize in 1964, and made it possible to produce synthetic versions of penicillin, as well as opening the doors to DNA research.
Elizabeth Stern (1915 – 1980)
Elizabeth Stern is responsible for a set of seminal studies which transformed the way cervical cancer was diagnosed and treated. By identifying the 250 stages in a cervical cell’s transition to its cancerous form, Stern made early detection of the cancer and effective treatment possible. Crucially, her discovery turned cervical cancer from a fatal disease to one that is easily managed.
Gertrude B. Elion (1918 – 1999)
Nobel prize winner Gertrude B. Elion is responsible for developing a staggering range of drugs used to treat some of the most debilitating viral infections and diseases in the modern world. Drugs to treat leukaemia, malaria, meningitis, viral herpes, and cancer are but a few among the 45 patents that Elion developed. Through developing the first immune-suppressive drug, she made it possible to treat AIDS and successfully transplant organs.
Henrietta Lacks (1920 – 1951)
Although an outsider to the medical profession, Henrietta Lacks has arguably made one of the greatest contributions to modern medicine. Cells taken from Henrietta’s cervical cancer tumour became the first cells to reproduce infinitely in a laboratory, constituting the world’s first immortal human cell line. This made all sorts of research possible and freed researchers from constantly trying to keep cells alive for testing. HeLa cells have been central to some of the most important breakthroughs in modern medicine, including IVF, cloning, chemotherapy and production of the polio vaccine.
Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
Rosalind Franklin was instrumental to the discovery of the structure of DNA, although her contribution was largely suppressed by two male colleagues who went on to claim the Nobel prize for its discovery. Franklin’s X-ray images revealed the double-helix structure of DNA, but were crucially not published with the rest of the research. She also made important contributions towards discovering the structures of viruses and coal.
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921 – 2011)
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1977 for her work in developing radioimmunoassay (RIA). This technique measures substances (antigens) in the body, notably insulin in the blood. It’s been used to trace hormones, vitamins and enzymes and establish effective screening for several infectious diseases. RIA is an essential means of testing for cancer and scanning for hepatitis and HIV.
Averil Mansfield (1937 – present)
Averil Mansfield is a retired vascular surgeon who pioneered stroke-preventing arterial surgery. She was also the UK’s first female professor of surgery and held the position of president of the British Medical Association from 2009-10. Having enjoyed a highly successful career and establishing herself at a senior level dominated by men, she has led several projects to encourage other women to join the profession and address the gender imbalance within the field of surgery.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (1947 – present)
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi received the Nobel Prize for her 1983 seminal discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), alongside co-scientist Luc Montagnier. She has researched and published extensively on the subject, crucially revealing how HIV is spread and detailing its connection to AIDS. She currently works with developing countries to address the spread of HIV, focusing on prevention, improved care, and treatment.