Historic Women in Science

Mackenzie Dickson

When people think of famous women in science most people can name the chemist, Marie Curie. Marie Curie was born in Poland but is most famous for her work while living in Paris, France where she discovered the elements, radium, and polonium, and studied radioactivity. She was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1903, but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes! While there is no disputing Dr. Curie was a brilliant scientist, there are many amazing women in science that are not common household names. For example, have you heard of Elena Piscopia who was the first woman in the world to receive a doctoral degree in 1678? Dr. Piscopia studied mathematics, not reproduction, but in honor of Women’s History Month, I have compiled a list of a few historic women that have influenced the field of reproductive sciences. As a disclaimer, this is by no means an all-encompassing list and the women are listed in chronological order.

1. Dr. Nettie Stevens (1861-1912): Dr. Stevens was a geneticist interested in sex determination. The big question at the time was how embryos differentiated into males and females. She performed her research on insects, including butterflies, beetles, and mealworms. She found male insects have gametes containing X or Y chromosomes while females have only X chromosomes. She published her work in 1905 overturning many misconceptions of sex differentiation. However, around the same time, another scientist made the same observation. Unfortunately, her research career was cut short as she died of cancer only nine years after completing her PhD. Despite the short career, she had over 30 publications but unfortunately is often overlooked for her groundbreaking discovery.

2. Dr. Virginia Apgar (1909-1974): Dr. Apgar grew up in New Jersey and was interested in a career in medicine from an early age. She graduated from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1933 and was one of nine women in a class of ninety students! She never stopped learning and even received her Masters of Public Health in 1959. She is most known for her work in the early 1950s, when she developed a scoring system to evaluate newborn babies’ health based on heart rate, respiration, movement, irritability, and color. With the help of other doctors, she worked to relate these “Apgar scores” with effects of labor, delivery, and maternal anesthesia practices. This evaluation and scoring system became standard and is still in use today!

3. Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey (1914-2015): Dr. Kelsey was born in Canada but moved to the United States to obtain her PhD and MD degrees at the University of Chicago. She worked as an editorial associate at the American Medical Association, general practitioner, and taught pharmacology but is most known for her career at the Food and Drug Administration. She was assigned to review the drug, thalidomide, a sleeping pill commonly used in Europe. She was concerned with data demonstrating dangerous side effects in patients that took the drug long-term. In Europe, reports of babies having severe birth defects surfaced from women who took thalidomide during pregnancy. Dr. Kelsey took a stand and fought to have thalidomide banned in the U.S. and is credited with helping the U.S. avert the tragedy that occurred in Europe.

4. Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951): Ms. Lacks was a mother of five from southern Virginia who went to the doctor to seek advice for vaginal bleeding. Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital. After collecting a biopsy of the malignant tumor, a sample of her cells were sent, without her consent, to a research lab. These cells were put in culture and thrived, and essentially were immortal. These cells became known as HeLa cells, named after Henrietta Lacks, and have been used for numerous studies across multiple disciplines. However, there is much more to these cells than just their ability to proliferate. They also tell a story of racial inequality as Henrietta was a black woman. Her family was not aware that these cells existed until the 1970s, more than two decades since Henrietta passed. None of the profits from these cells had reached Henrietta’s family and for years after her death, many scientists and doctors failed to ask her family for consent. Within the last few years, some companies and institutes, such as Abcam and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have gifted donations to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation as a form of reparations.

5. Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (1942- ): Dr. Nüsslein-Volhard was born in Germany in 1942 and grew up wanting to study plants and animals. She completed her PhD in molecular biology in 1974, a time when men still outnumbered women as scientists. Her most famous work is in embryonic patterning and development. She screened thousands of flies for mutants and worked to understand genes that control development. She is also known for the discovery and demonstration of morphogen gradients. Among many other awards, she won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995 and established the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation in 2004 which provides support and resources to talented young women scientists with children. The goal is to promote gender equality in sciences and specifically targets graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, as balancing a career in science and having children is challenging. Dr. Nüsslein-Volhard is currently an Emeritus Professor at the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology and still leads a research laboratory.

Other women who deserve being mentioned in this blog include physicians Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), and Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917), who were the first women to receive a medical degree in the United States and France, respectively, and Dr. Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011) who created the radioimmunoassay to quantify hormones.

These women have contributed to the success of many other women in science and in the study of reproduction. There are many more who I have not read about or who have not been written about or both. Please share these names and stories with friends and family and continue to honor and promote women in science!

Many sources were used for this blog including articles from Britannica, Nature, NIH biographical profiles, National Public Radio, The Nobel Prize Organization, The History Press UK, The Hopkins Medicine Organization, Scientific Women, and the book “Women in Science” by Rachel Ignotofsky. For specific sources, feel free to contact the author.

About the Author:

Dr. Mackenzie Dickson is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. She currently studies uterine biology but in the fourth grade she wrote a report on and dressed up as Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Follow her on Twitter @mackkers25 . Women in science are awesome!

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