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Influential Women in Medicine

Throughout history, women have made extraordinary medical contributions that have advanced our society. This includes the medical text written by Greek physician Metrodora around 200 A.D., all the way up to today’s groundbreaking COVID-19 vaccine development of Kizzmekia Corbett in 2020.

Often these strides were made in the face of prejudice and discrimination. To celebrate some of those triumphs, Wellfleet is taking a look at five of history’s most influential women in medicine.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to graduate with a medical degree from a medical school in the United States.

Born in England in 1821, Blackwell moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 11 years old. As an adult, she spent several years as a teacher until a dying friend confided that she perhaps she would have suffered less if her doctor had been a woman. It was this observation that spurred Blackwell into action. Despite the fact that women weren’t being admitted to medical schools at the time, she applied to dozens and was accepted at Geneva Medical College in New York.

In college, Blackwell faced discrimination and many obstacles, including being excluded from lectures and labs, and being shunned by locals for defying her gender role. However, Blackwell overcame those obstacles and graduated first in her class in 1849.

She went on to open a small clinic and infirmary for women and children in New York City. Blackwell was so revered, that during the civil war her hospital was used to train nurses for Union soldier hospitals. In 1868, she opened a medical college in New York City. And, before returning to Europe to teach at the London School of Medicine, she helped found the National Health Society.

Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906)

Mary Putnam Jacobi, the first female member of the Academy of Medicine, was born in London, England, and moved to New York with her parents in 1848. Although a talented and published writer by 17, she is best known for her career in medicine.

Jacobi began her studies at the New York College of Pharmacy in 1861 and three years later, received her medical degree from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. In addition to leading a highly revered career as a physician, Jacobi went on to write nine books and more than 120 influential scientific articles.

As a staunch proponent for the inclusion of women in scientific and medical professions, Jacobi dedicated much of her life to broadening educational opportunities for women. This ultimately led to her founding the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women.

For her pioneering work and activism, Jacobi was voted into the Academy of Medicine, becoming the society’s first female member in its history.

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)

Black and white image of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was an American woman who has had a profound impact on medicine in two very different ways, both unknown to her. Her cells revolutionized modern medical research, allowing advances that had previously been unreachable. Her family’s tragic search for truth and justice following her untimely death led to the establishment of new patient rights and privacy standards, including informed consent, medical records privacy, and protocol for communicating with tissue donors and research participants.

In 1951, at the age of 31, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital due to severe abdominal pain. Sadly, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and passed away only a few months after starting treatment.

A sample of Lacks’ cancer cells, which had been retrieved during a biopsy, were sent to a doctor’s lab for cancer research. The lab was working to model human cancer in a test tube to develop therapeutics against the disease.

While many cancer cells grow and replicate, their replication had never been witnessed outside the body until Henrietta Lacks’ cells were studied. Researchers found that Lacks’ cells replicated indefinitely. This led to groundbreaking cell culture methods. Today, in honor of Henrietta Lacks, these cells are referred to as “HeLa” cells.

Thanks to Lacks’ cells, scientists were able to make breakthroughs in cell biology, drug development, and the basic understanding of various human diseases. HeLa cells have impacted the development of treatments for Parkinson’s, AIDS, influenza, leukemia, certain cancers, and hemophilia. HeLa cells also contributed to developing the polio vaccine, establishing the field of virology, and even contributed to space travel research.

Unfortunately, the Lacks family had no idea that doctors had taken her cells or that some of her cells were still alive. In fact, it wasn’t until 1973, when a family friend who was a researcher mentioned that he did work on HeLa cells, that the family learned a part of Henrietta was still alive.

Nanette Kass Wenger (1930 – )

Image of Nanette Wenger

Nanette Kass Wenger is a world-renowned cardiologist. Born in New York City in 1930, just 24 years later she was one of only 10 women in the 120-student graduating class of Harvard University Medical School.

Wenger went on to become one of the first medical practitioners to focus on coronary heart disease in women, which led her to examine the differentiation of risk factors and symptoms of heart disease among men and women. Until her research was published in 1993, heart disease had been considered a disease that primarily affected men. Now we know that heart disease is actually the leading cause of death for women in the United States.

Since that breakthrough, Wenger has authored and co-authored more than 1,600 scientific publications and won many cardiology awards and accolades. Dr. Wenger is currently a professor emeritus at Emory University School of Medicine and a consultant for the Emory Heart and Vascular Center.

Kizzmekia Corbett (1986 – )

Image of Kizzmekia Corbett

Kizzmekia Corbett is a world-famous viral immunologist at the Vaccine Research Center’s Institute of Allergy and Infectious disease. Born in 1986 in North Carolina, she earned a PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Since 2014, Corbett has dedicated her research to coronavirus biology and vaccine development. It was those years of research that led to a huge scientific breakthrough. The discovery that a stabilized version of a spike protein found on all coronaviruses’ surfaces can be a crucial target for vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments.

Corbett and her team have been an integral part of the development of the Moderna mRNA vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. As a result, her work is having a significant impact on ending the worst respiratory-disease pandemic in more than a century.

Continuing to pioneer medical breakthroughs

These women and many others have made it possible for us to be where we are in the world of medicine and healthcare today. Their extraordinary achievements and contributions have saved countless lives and continue to inspire generations of women in medicine. For that, we are thankful and look forward to those advancements that today’s students and researchers will continue to provide.

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