Celebrated every March, Women's History Month honors the often-overlooked contributions of women in history, society, and culture. This year's theme — "Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope"— salutes both the brave frontline workers of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the countless women who have provided healing and hope throughout history.
Here are two unsung female healthcare pioneers who have helped make the world safer.
Elizabeth Blackwell, who made history in 1849 by becoming the first woman to earn a medical degree in America, did not even want to be a doctor. She was happy being a teacher — a more "suitable" career for women in the 19th century. She only decided to pursue medicine after a close friend, who was dying of cancer, said her experience would have been better under the care of a female physician.
The male doctors Blackwell talked to all thought it was a good idea but impossible to achieve. Medical universities were expensive and, more importantly, not available to women. Undeterred, the then-25-year-old applied to over 20 medical schools across the US. All rejected her except for Geneva Medical College in Western New York State. It was later revealed that the faculty and the all-male student body had voted in favor of Blackwell as a joke. They never expected her to attend, let alone earn a medical degree. Blackwell proved them wrong by graduating at the top of her class!
In 1857, Blackwell recruited her sister Emily — the third woman to earn a medical degree in America — and a physician friend to establish the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. The free clinic provided female doctors with much-needed training and experience. She also founded the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary — the first four-year all-female medical college. The pioneer continued to advocate for women in medicine till her death in 1910 at age 89. Since 2016, Blackwell's birthday — February 3 — has been designated National Women Physicians Day.
Dr. Kathrin Jansen
When Dr. Kathrin Jansen, head of Vaccine Research and Development at Pfizer Inc., heard about the highly contagious COVID-19 outbreak in China, she suspected it could get out of control. But the Hungarian-born biochemist never guessed she would soon be leading a team of more than 700 researchers charged with creating an effective COVID-19 vaccine.
Jansen's fascination with medicine began at a young age, thanks to her father's ability to cure her frequent throat infections and coughs. "You're a small person, and you have this violent cough, and you feel sick as a dog," she recalls. "And then you get this drug. And it makes you feel better."
A few years after earning her Ph.D. in 1984, Jansen accepted a job at Merck's vaccine division. Her first challenge was to create a vaccine for the human papillomavirus, which was believed to cause cervical cancer in the 1980s. Jansen faced significant opposition, both from researchers — who thought the vaccine would not work— and Merck's finance gurus — who believed it would not be profitable. But she persisted. The Gardasil vaccine, approved in 2006, now earns Merck billions of dollars annually.
Soon after, Jansen moved on to Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, where she worked on the Prevnar 13 vaccine. Considered one of the most complicated vaccines ever made, it protects kids from all 13 strains of pneumococcus. The bacteria are responsible for ailments ranging from ear and sinus infections to pneumonia and bloodstream infections. When Jansen's boss left Wyeth — now part of Pfizer — she was appointed head of the vaccine research team — and the rest, as they say, is history!
Happy Women's History Month!
Resources: Statnews.com, cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov, healthmatters. nyp.org, wokipedia.org