Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Women Leading Pandemic Research Through Time

By Sethanne Howard

Medical schools routinely have 50% female students. Does that mean women are equal participants in the field? Let us consider the issue and start with the current pandemic. Women are leading research teams studying the novel COVID-19 virus. There is Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, MD at the National Institutes of Health who is leading a team developing a vaccine for the virus. Dr. Susan Weiss, PhD, along with Dr. Frederic Bushman, PhD, directs the Penn Center for Research on Coronavirus and Other Emerging Pathogens. The goals of the Center are to: expand the research, centralize information on the research, and compile sources for new funding for research on SARS CoV-2.

So we can see that today there are women leading research teams studying this class of virus. Were they active before then? Let’s look back at the wonderful women who came before!

Women in medicine go back a very long way. Much of what we call medicine and midwifery is and always has been the province of women. The first mention of a woman in medicine occurred in 2800 BCE. Midwifery was almost exclusively run by women until the 18th century when men usurped the lead away from this traditional women’s task.

As always, women kept their medical tradition alive even in the Dark Ages (that were not really so dark). The first Western-type university was founded in Salerno, Italy in 875 CE as a medical school. And from that time to this, for over a thousand years, women equally with men have been welcome at the doors of Italian universities. So it is not remarkable that there are so many talented Italian women in medicine.

In the United States by 1860 there were about 200 women with MDs. The census of 1880 showed that there were 2,400 women of medicine. By the end of the 19th century, the number of women with MDs increased to over 7000. Here are some women who made huge strides in the fields of pandemics and vaccines during the 20th century.

  • Josephine S. Baker (1873 – 1945 CE) went to the Women’s Medical College in New York City to earn her MD. She took a part-time job with the Department of Public health as a public school health inspector where she rose in the ranks to create and run the Bureau of Child Hygiene. In terms of epidemics, typhoid was ubiquitous. Dr. Baker helped track down “typhoid Mary” (Mary Mallon). She also perfected the application of silver nitrate eyedrops to infants, now a standard procedure to prevent eye infections in newborns. She was the first woman to be assistant surgeon general in the United States. She was also the first woman representative to the League of Nations – as Health Committee representative for the United States.
  • Sister Kenny (c. 1886 – 1952 CE) was a pioneer in the treatment of polio before the discovery of the Salk vaccine. Her autobiography (written in 1943) entitled And They Shall Walk was made into a movie. She trained as a nurse in the Australian medical corps and served during World War I. After the War she learned more about polio and developed her own ideas for treatment. She invented a special stretcher to transport patients in shock. Royalties from the patent gave her the money to start her own clinic for the treatment of polio. She advocated applying heat and physical therapy to polio victims in opposition to the medical establishment that advocated immobilization. She came to the United States to the University of Minnesota medical center. Although her methods were never formally endorsed by the medical profession she got good results. In the late 1950s, the Kenny Institute and the World Health Organization were the major supporters of continued polio research. The Kenny Institute survives as part of the Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.
  • Anna Wessel Williams (1863 – 1954 CE) isolated a strain of diphtheria that was instrumental in the development of an antitoxin for the disease. She was a firm believer in the collaborative nature of laboratory science and helped build some of the more successful teams of bacteriologists, which included many women, working in the country at the time. In 1896 Williams traveled to the Pasteur Institute in Paris hoping to find a toxin for scarlet fever that could be used to develop an antitoxin, as she had done for diphtheria. She was unsuccessful, but while there, she developed a new interest in the rabies work that was going on in Paris. She returned to the United States with a culture of the virus to try to develop a better way to diagnose rabies. By 1898 the culture had been used to develop enough vaccine to allow for the large-scale production of rabies vaccine.
  • Rachel Fuller Brown (1898 – 1980 CE) was the first woman to receive the Pioneer Chemist Award from the American Institute of Chemists (1975). She discovered the vaccine for bacterial pneumonia that is still used today. In 1950 along with microbiologist Elizabeth Hazen she isolated the first antifungal antibiotic, Nystatin, effective against fungal diseases. Nystatin is a polyene antifungal drug to which many molds and yeast infections are sensitive. It was also the first antifungal antibiotic to be safe and effective in treating human diseases. Not only did it cure many serious fungal infections of the skin, mouth, throat, and intestinal tract, but it could also be combined with antibacterial drugs to balance their side effects.
  • Gertrude Elion (1918 – 1999 CE) studied chemistry at Hunter College in New York City graduating in 1937. She was initially unable to obtain a graduate research position because she was a woman. She did find a job as a lab assistant at the New York Hospital School of Nursing in 1937. She worked as a research chemist at other places finally settling at Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories. There she was first the assistant and then the colleague of George Hitchings, with whom she worked for the next four decades. So, although she never received the PhD, she contributed a great deal. In 1988 Elion, Hitchings, and Sir James W. Black received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their development of drugs used to treat several major diseases. Elion and Hitchings developed thioguanine and 6-mercaptopurine against leukemia and pyrimethamine against malaria. Azathioprine, a drug that prevents rejection of transplanted organs and allopurinol which is used in the treatment of gout were developed in 1957 and 1963, respectively. An important discovery was that the chemotherapeutic effects of pyrimethamine and trimethoprim were markedly enhanced by sulphonamides. In 1991 she also received the National Medal of Science and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
  • Although penicillin, the miracle drug, was first identified by Sir Alexander Fleming, he was not the one who pursued its further development. It was women who carried the flag forward: Gladys Hobby (1910 – 1993 CE), Elizabeth McCoy, Dorothy Fennel, Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994), and Margaret Hutchinson (1910 – 2000 CE). Dorothy Hodgkin bombarded penicillin with x-rays to deduce how it was put together. She received the 1964 Nobel Prize in medicine. Gladys Hobby brewed the first batch of penicillin tested on people. Margaret Hutchinson designed the first commercial plant that made penicillin on a massive scale. Elizabeth McCoy created the strand of penicillin used today.
  • Louise Pearce (1885 – 1959 CE) was one of the main figures in the development of the drug typarsamide. This drug wiped out whole epidemics of African sleeping sickness. She and her colleagues were awarded the Order of the Crown of Belgium.
  • Angela Ferguson (b. 1925) was a relentless researcher who received her MD from Howard University in 1949 and went on to study the disease of sickle-cell anemia. Her work, along with others, led to the efficient detection and control of this terrible disease.
  • In 1923, microbiologist Gladys Dick (1881 – 1963 CE) and physician George Dick isolated the cause of scarlet fever, and later developed a test for the disease.

By looking backward we highlighted several women in medicine. Clearly, women were and remain at the forefront of medical research.

Dr. Sethanne Howard is a research astronomer with over 40 years of experience in astronomy and education. Her research specialty is interacting galaxies but her hobby is the history of women in science. She has worked at many astronomical observatories and also for NASA, for the National Science Foundation and finally just retired as Chief of the Nautical Almanac Office at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, DC.
She is the first woman to receive a degree in physics from the University of California, Davis. She went on to receive a Master’s Degree in nuclear physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a PhD in astrophysics from Georgia State University. Between her bachelor’s degree and PhD she worked for many years in various scientific fields and taught high school physics and university astronomy. All those years of working in science led to a series of scientific publications including determining the rotational periods of Neptune and Uranus, the rotational temperature of Jupiter, masses of Seyfert galaxies, the total neutron cross section of uranium, as well as developing the early image processing in astronomy [that eventually led to IRAF]. Only at age 42 did she return to graduate school to complete her PhD studying large-scale computer simulations of interacting galaxies [she grew tired, you see, of staying up all night at telescopes]. Her dissertation explained the now accepted idea behind for the appearance of the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51.
After her PhD work she spent time working with x-ray satellites at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Onward to NASA/Marshall Space Center where she worked with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (a NASA satellite). She became a national Shapley Lecturer for the American Astronomical Society. From Marshall she went to NASA Headquarters where she managed several operating NASA astrophysics satellites and mission programs. Before coming to the US Naval Observatory she spent three years at the National Science Foundation as the Program Manager for Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology and also Executive Secretary for the international Gemini Telescopes Project.
Her hobby is the history of women in science and technology. She maintains a web site dedicated to this effort hosted at the University of Alabama where you can learn about more women in STEM. www.4kyws.ua.edu

No comments :

Post a Comment