Pandemic or Not, March is Women’s History Month — Here are Women You Probably Never Heard of Who Made Lifesaving Medical Advances

Issue 124 — March 23, 2020

Like just about everyone else, I’ve been consumed with thinking about, worrying about, learning about, and changing my lifestyle because of the COVID-19 pandemic this past few weeks. I’m fortunate to be near a walking path where social distancing remains possible and if I smile at them first, other walkers will smile back at me.

Our family’s virtual birthday party cake.

I hope you are well, safe, and optimistic in the face of this unprecedented disease.

Or maybe not so unprecedented and maybe we are much more fortunate than in pandemics historically, as Katha Pollitt points out, despite or perhaps in part because of widespread media coverage that amps up both our knowledge and our anxiety.

So it occurred to me that because Coronavirus has eaten up the airwaves like Pacman on steroids, Women’s History Month has been given short shrift. I am here to do my small part to rectify that by calling out some women who made advances that improved health care and might even help us conquer the COVID beast. I’ll bet you never heard of any of them. I hadn’t until I started researching for this article.

There was Patricia Bath, for example, the first African American female ophthalmologist and to get a medical patent. She invented the Laserphaco Probe which improved cataract treatment and helped to restore eyesight to individuals who had been blind for 30 years or more.

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Certainly relevant to today’s most pressing health issue, do you know who invented the now-ubiquitous hand sanitizer?

Ellen McGirt answers that question in her column raceAhead on 3–20–20:

Turn out, it was a Latina nursing student named Lupe Hernandez. The year was 1966, and Hernandez had come to believe that an alcohol solution delivered via a gel could help medical professionals stay sanitary when they lacked easy access to soap and water. She even registered a patent for the process by calling an inventions telephone hotline. Her story was reported by The Guardian in 2012, noting the ubiquity of the product at the time. “In the US alone, the growth of the market is astounding: valued at $28m (£17m) in 2002, it had swollen to $80m (£50m) by 2006, and is predicted to be worth some $402m (£250m) by 2015.” (Here are new global figures.) But, notes Marcos Hassan in Remezcla, we don’t know anything about Hernandez or her life. “Unsurprisingly, this is yet another case of a Latinx being written out of history, and it’s refreshing to see her get a bit of recognition, albeit late,” he says. The Guardian

We have Women’s History Month because so many women have been left out of it.

Esther Lederberg was a brilliant microbiologist and genetics researcher whose husband won a Nobel prize based on her work and discoveries the two made together, for which neither he nor others gave her credit. She pioneered bacterial genetics and discovered the lambda phage, “a bacterial virus which is widely used as a tool to study gene regulation and genetic recombination. She also invented the replica plating technique, which is used to isolate and analyse bacterial mutants and track antibiotic resistance.”

Th first woman in America to win a Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine was Gerty Cori, whose work, like Lederberg’s was often overshadowed by her husband’s with whom she worked and shared the Nobel. Her work focused on how the body uses energy, and she identified the enzyme that initiates the decomposition of glycogen into glucose. Dr Cori’s original research helped lead to viable treatment options for diabetes.

A pioneering female pediatrician from Atlanta GA, Leila Denmark, developed the vaccine to prevent pertussis, or whooping cough, which prior to the vaccine’s invention was responsible for almost 200,000 child deaths per year in the U.S. alone.

Women have had to fight hard even to enter any aspect of medical and other scientific professions. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female physician in the U.S. only after studying medicine in her own for some time before the men in the Geneva Medical college voted to let her attend as a practical joke. The joke was on them. Motivated to study medicine by a female friend who when ill confided that she believed she would have been treated better if she’d had a female physician, Elizabeth excelled in her medical studies and even founded a medical school for women.

There’s a reason why “Know your history and you can create the future of your choice” is the first of my 9 Leadership Power Tools. Because if you can’t see another woman in a particular role, it’s highly unlikely that you will be able to see yourself in it.

Posted by journalist, author of Beauty Bites Beast, and activist Ellen Snortland on Facebook, I learned this interested story about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and how smallpox vaccine was discovered:

“Edward Jenner is incorrectly credited with “inventing” the small pox vaccination, speaking of pandemics, as most of us are these days. (Jenner didn’t take credit; the misogynist culture did.)

Lady Montagu, an uncommon woman, whose intellect matched her astonishing beauty, survived the small pox epidemic but her face didn’t. Scarred with no eyelashes, she didn’t let her disfigurement kill her curiosity. She traveled to Turkey with her ambassador husband. She visited villages where she noticed that the Turkish people had no small pox scarring.

Lady Montagu.

She found out that the women who milked cows had pieced together the knowledge that a small dose of cowpox fluid, administered by a sewing needle prevented people from catching small pox.

Lady Montagu brought that knowledge back to England — Jenner was a young lad at the time — and started her movement to end small pox…proving of course that beneficial ideas can be as contagious as diseases can be devastating.

Our own FLOTUS, Abigail Adams, heard about the vaccine and against popular opinion, vaccinated her children.

Thank you Turkish milk women and girls and Lady Montagu!!!”

So it was actually women’s medical observations that stopped one pandemic, and perhaps it will be again. This far, a Seattle woman, Jennifer Haller, has been first to receive an experimental vaccine in order to test its efficacy. A female founded company, Everlywell, based in Austin Texas is launching an at-home test kit for COVID-19 on March 23. Everlywell founder and CEO Julia Cheek declared on Twitter that it’s her proudest day ever.

Perhaps if women in previous eras had social media, like Cheek, they could have made sure their own her-stories were told and not left out of the historical record.

One thing I know for sure about history is that its is often in moments of chaos and crisis that world changing new ideas emerge. And they are accepted because times of chaos are yeasty. They are times when boundaries become malleable and people are open to doing things in new ways because the old ways aren’t working. My Power TO You podcast this week tackles that issue and gives you five specific techniques for thriving in chaos by taking its energy to propel you forward. Take a listen please and let me know your additional tips. Subscribe, rate, and review on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.


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