Today marks the 107th annual International Women’s Day since the Suffragettes first started the campaign back in 1911. We’ve decided to celebrate this year by recognising inspirational women who have influenced the history of medicine. Whilst the number of female doctors in the UK has risen steadily over the years, they still only account for 34% of the GMC’s Specialist Register*, so there is still more work to be done. However, many of our inspiring women faced far greater hurdles in their ambition to change the perception of what women could achieve. Here are our top five women who we believe helped change the face of medicine.
- Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1903, when she and her husband, Pierre Curie, discovered two new elements, polonium and radium. This work observed the relationship between radioactivity and heavy elements of the periodic table, which led to huge developments in the advancement of medicine. After the death of her husband in 1906, she continued her work and became the first and still only person ever to win Nobel Prizes in two scientific fields in 1911. Curie also developed the use of portable X-ray machines during the First World War for field hospitals.
- Gertrude Elion (1918-1999)
Gertrude Elion was an American biochemist and pharmacologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988 with George Hitchings and Sir James Black. Over the course of her career Gertrude invented drug treatments for leukaemia, gout, malaria, viral herpes and the prevention of kidney transplant rejection. However, she is perhaps, most well known for her contribution in the development of AZT, which was the first antiretroviral drug to treat AIDs.
- Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)
Originally born in England, Elizabeth Blackwell was a pioneer for women in medicine, breaking through many barriers to become the first female doctor ever in the U.S., when she graduated from New York’s Geneva Medical College in January 1849. She also became the first woman to have her name entered on the General Medical Council’s medical register in Britain in January 1859. Her notable achievements include opening the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 with her sister, Dr Emily Blackwell and Dr Marie Zakrzewska, as well as publishing the book ‘Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.
- Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)
Before Florence Nightingale, nursing was not perceived as the honourable profession that it is today. In fact, she was actively discouraged from pursuing the career by her family due to nursing’s bad reputation, and the expected role of an upper-class British woman at the time. However, Nightingale rejected this and continued to pursue her career in nursing. She came to prominence during the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856, while serving as a manager for nurses she had trained. She changed the reputation of nursing and became an icon of Victorian culture for the professionalism she brought to the treatment of the wounded soldiers and her persona as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’. Many nurses even today have been inspired to take up the profession due to her influence.
- Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011)
Rosalyn Yalow was involved in the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones in 1977, which allows us to measure hormones in the blood. It was due to this research that she received the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine in 1977 together with Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally. This technique made it possible to scan blood donations for diseases like HIV/AIDs, which has been crucial in ensuring that blood transfusions are carried out safely.
Whilst there have been great strides in gender equality since many of these inspiring women were plying their trade, there is still a long way to go. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report**, gender parity is over 200 years away. This year, International Women’s Day are calling on people to #PressforProgress to motivate and unite friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive. Choose your action for this year’s International Women’s Day here to help us progress towards gender parity.