5 Inspiring Women Who Made an Impact in Medicine

March 2, 2017 No comments exist

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin

From Cairo to chemistry to “cracking” penicillin’s complex structure

Dorthy Hodgkin was born in 1910 in a British Colony in Cairo, Egypt and moved to England when she was four. At a very young age, she became fascinated by crystals, chemistry, and x-rays. In school, she was known for working on projects that other’s thought might be impossible. She graduated from Oxford in 1932 and worked studying biological crystals. At 24 years old she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis but this did not slow her down. She because one of the most skilled crystallographer of her time. Around the same time, she ran into Ernst Chain who was doing trials with penicillin. Hodgkin eventually “cracked penicillin’s complex and misleading structure in 1946,” which lead to the creation of semisynthetic penicillins. Later, she even discovered and announced the structure of vitamin B12. Dorthy Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964.  In 1969 Hodgkin mapped out the structure of insulin.


Growing up around the time of World War I, and losing four brothers to the war, also motivated Hodgkin to promote peace and cooperation through her life’s work. She was involved with the League of Nations and Science for Peace.





Gertrude B. Elion

She’s the brains (and beauty!) behind the development of synthetic drugs

Gertrude B. Elion was born in 1918 in New York City. As a child, Gertrude had an “insatiable thirst for knowledge”. After her grandfather died of cancer when she was 15, Elion decided to study chemistry at Hunter College in hopes of finding a cure. The Great Depression prevented her from attending graduate school and made it hard to find a job. Men were given priority over women for the few positions that were available in a laboratory. Instead, she taught biochemistry to nurses until the opportunity to work in a laboratory opened up. Elion eventually found a laboratory assistant job until she saved enough money to go to graduate school at New York University. She was the only female in her graduate chemistry class. Elion earned her Master of Science degree in chemistry in 1941. She later took an assistant position to George Hitchings. She loved this job because it allowed her to learn rapidly about biochemistry, pharmacology, immunology, and even virology. It was here that she had the opportunity to help develop new drugs.


Before Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings, drugs were produced from natural substances. Elion and Hitchings developed a synthetic method and together produced drugs for leukemia, malaria, gout, and organ transplants.


Later in life, Elion served on committees for the American Cancer Society, the Leukemia Society of America, the World Health Organization, and others. She also became a professor of medicine and pharmacology at Duke Univerisity.




Elizabeth Blackwell

The first women to graduate from an American Medical School

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in 1821 and moved to American at 11 years old. Initially she “hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book… the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.” However, she decided to study medicine after a close friend who was dying suggested that she would have been “spared her worst suffering if her physician had been a woman.”


Blackwell set out to study medicine even though she was told it would be too expensive and impossible for women at that time. She is believed to have applied to all of the medical schools in New York, Philadelphia, and other northeast states until she was eventually accepted by Geneva Medical College in 1847. The administration assumed the all-male students would never agree to a woman joining their university and allowed them to vote on her admission. The story goes that they all voted “yes” as a joke. Well, the joke was on them because she was admitted. Rumor has it that her male classmates were often times more studious and better behaved when she was in class. When it came time to study reproductive anatomy, the professor asked her to step out but Blackwell disagreed and was allowed to stay thanks to the support of her classmates. From there, she went on to work for a few years until she lost sight in one of her eyes which prevented her from becoming a surgeon.


When she was refused a job at a women’s clinic, she opened her own in New York in 1857. At age 64, she and her colleagues opened New York Infirmary for Women and Children. In 1867 they added a medical college for women. She went on to become a leading public health activist. Blackwell came from a family of famous activists. Her brother, Henry Blackwell, was famous an abolitionist and women’s suffrage supporter. Her sister-in-law, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, was the first female Protestant minister.


Perhaps being radical runs in the family?





The first gynecologist… maybe?

Full disclosure; some scholars believe the story of Agnodice is historical fact while others say it is a legend. Regardless, we think it is a story worth telling.


In 4th century BCE, there was a woman named Agnodice who dressed like a man in order to practice medicine. At the time it was illegal for women to practice medicine, especially gynecology, to the extent where it even punishable by death. Agnodice was upset by the infant and mother mortality rate during childbirth. This is what prompted her to cut her hair, dress as a man, and travel or Alexandria to study medicine. (Talk about commitment)


After her studies, she returned to her home in Athens where she began treating expectant mothers after secretly revealing her female identity to the women in the community. In front of the men, she would maintain her male disguise. Agnodice was soon in high demand which made the men suspicious that this “male” doctor must be seducing their women. Agnodice was called in front of a jury. The legend goes that she had to reveal herself to the jury in order to convince them that she was a woman. This only made things worse and the male jury sentenced her to be executed. When word got back to the women they stormed and demanded her release. Not only was Agnodice released but the law was also changed.


Happy wife happy life right?



Youyou Tu

Proof that medical degrees are not a pre-requisite for Nobel Prizes in Medicine


Youyou Tu was born on December 1930 in Zhejiang Ningbo, China and won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for her novel therapies against Malaria. When she was young, Tu attended the best schools in her region until she contracted tuberculosis forcing her to take a two-year-long break from school. This is what motivated her to study medicine and pharmaceutical sciences at the Medical School of Peking University. Her courses gave her insights into the herbal remedies that were traditional in China. Tu’s training gave her an in-depth understanding of both traditional Chinese and Western medicine.  She says that this unique blend benefitted her work enormously.


Malaria is a life-threatening epidemic disease. The Chinese started research in 1964 which was called the National 523 Office. After testing thousands of compounds with no results, the National 523 Office sought out the help of the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine where Tu was appointed to head Project 523. Tu was responsible for searching for an antimalaria drug among traditional Chinese medicine. Saying this was a huge responsibility would be an understatement. This also had a big impact on her family.


Tu thoroughly reviewed traditional Chinese medical literature dating back from the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 B.C.) to the Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644 A.D.). She collected over two thousand herbal, animal and mineral prescriptions. After multiple failures, the herb called Qinghao showed promise. Tu developed a new way of extracting this herb’s key components. On October 4, 1971, her team observed sample number 191 showing a 100% effectiveness rate for inhibiting malaria in rodents. The team started producing large quantities of the Qinghao herb extract in 1972 and conducted successful clinical trials later that year. “The compound was later named artemisinin, or Qinghaosu in Chinese.” Since then, more than 200 million malaria patients have received this artemisinin. Tu is highly awarded and continues her research.




Can’t get enough? The Huffington Post has this list of 50 Women Who Changed Our Health.

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