As recently as the 1970s, women’s history was virtually an unknown topic in curriculum or in the public consciousness. To address this situation, the Education Task Force of the Commission on the Status of Women initiated a “Women’s History Week” celebration in 1978. The day March 8th, International Women’s Day, was chosen as the focal point of the observance.

This momentum grew and state-by-state action was used to lobby US Congress to affirm the entire month of March as National Women’s History Month and this was achieved in 1987, when Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. Up to today, a special Presidential Proclamation is issued every year which honours the extraordinary achievements of women.

Despite Prejudice and Discrimation, Women create History in Medicine

Throughout history, women were largely excluded from the realms of science and medicine, except for nursing or midwifery. Often in the face of prejudice and discrimination, many women over the centuries have made outstanding medical contributions and continue to do so today. The mid-1950s marked a turning point in society’s view towards women working in science and medicine, although for the next decades, there was still consistent struggle to be seen as equals and recognition of such work.

This summation is by no means an exhaustive list, but a few of history’s most influential women in life sciences and their extraordinary achievements and contributions that have saved countless lives and continue to inspire generations of women in medicine to this day.

Metrodora (c. 200-400 AD)

Metrodora, a Greek female physician, wrote ‘On the Diseases and Cures of Women’, the oldest medical text known to be written by a woman. Notably, it did not include information on obstetrics, the study of childbirth, which was extremely rare in a time when women were restricted to gynaecology and midwifery. However, Metodora is known to have covered all areas of medicine related to women, developing various therapies and surgical techniques that were revolutionary in her time. She was heavily influenced by the work of Greek physician Hippocrates, and her work has influenced and been referenced by many other physician writers throughout history.

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Polish mathematician and scientist Marie Curie collaborated with her husband, Pierre, to discover two chemical elements in the periodic table: polonium and radium. This important work observed that there was a relationship between radioactivity and the heavy elements of the periodic table and led to much advancement in medicine. Most notably, it led the way to the development of the x-ray, which allowed internal imagery to be used for diagnosis without the need for open surgery, and radiation therapy for treating cancer.

During WWI, Marie and her daughter Irene brought mobile X-Ray machines and radiology units to the front line, which allowed more than a million wounded soldiers to be treated.

Curie earned a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and yet another in Chemistry in 1911 – the first and only woman to have been honoured twice. The Curie Institute in Paris, she founded in 1920, is still a major cancer research facility today.

Virginia Apgar (1909-1974)

Virginia Apgar is famous for her invention of the Apgar score, a vital test that was quickly adopted by doctors to test whether newborn babies required urgent medical attention. The Apgar score is responsible for reducing infant mortality rates considerably and is still used today to assess the clinical condition of newborns in the first few minutes of life. Apgar was the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)

British-born Elizabeth Blackwell is best known as the first woman to earn a medical degree (MD) in the US. She was raised in a forward-thinking, socially active family. Her father was a passionate advocate for the abolition of slavery and her siblings went on to campaign for women’s rights. After facing rejection from several universities, Blackwell was finally accepted to Geneva Medical College in 1847. She received hostility from her fellow students at first, eventually earning their respect and graduating first in her class in 1849. In 1857, she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children along with her sister, Dr Emily Blackwell (the third woman to earn an MD) and Dr Marie Zakrzewska. Blackwell played an important role in both the United States and the United Kingdom as a social awareness and moral reformer and promoted education for women in medicine through her inspirational book ‘Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women’.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

British scientist Rosalind Franklin is best known for her work in understanding the structure of DNA using x-ray photographs to solve its complexities. Her identification of the double helix has led to huge advances in the field of genetics and modern medicine. Franklin also led pioneering work on the molecular structures of RNA viruses and Polio.

Franklin had a passion for science from an early age and decided to become a scientist at the age of 15. She fought against her father’s reluctance to let her undertake higher education and graduated from Cambridge University in 1941. She worked for many years as a first-rate scientist and were it not for her untimely death from cancer in 1958, it is highly likely that she would have shared Nobel Prizes in both 1962 and 1982 for work that she had a huge role in during her lifetime.

Francoise Barré-Sinoussi (born 1947)

Parisian scientist Francoise Barré-Sinoussi is celebrated for her discovery of HIV as the cause of the immunodeficiency disease, AIDS. In 2008, Barré, along with Luc Montaigner, discovered that the HIV retrovirus attacked lymphocytes, a blood cell that plays an important role in the body’s immune system. Her vital work has helped millions of people who are HIV-positive to live long, healthy lives, and could pave the way for a cure in the near future.

Patricia S Cowings (born 1948)

The first American woman to be trained as a scientist astronaut by NASA as an aerospace psychophysiologist. She is most well known for her studies in the physiology of astronauts in outer space, as well as helping find cures for astronaut’s motion sickness. She did most of her research at NASA Ames Research Center. There, she developed and patented a physiological training system called Autogenic-Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE), which enables people to learn voluntary self-control of up to 24 bodily responses in six hours.

Patricia found her love for science at a young age. Patricia was involved in African dance and step and graduated with a bachelors in the arts. Psychology, and later psychophysiology, showed her how to enhance human potential.

We hope this summation has jolted your synapses and welcome you to share with us which women in medicine in Trinidad and Tobago have inspired you.

Email to [email protected] and look out for those stories on March 30th.