Celebrating Women's History Month

Updated: Apr 26

Gertrude Elion

A pharmacologist and biochemist, 1988 Nobel Prize winner Gertrude Elion and her colleague were one of the first to use a method known as "rational drug design" in an effort to develop medications used to treat serious infectious diseases. The success of this method paved the way for the development of several effective drugs for treating leukemia, gout, malaria, herpes, and many other illnesses.

To further her incredible impact in the medical sciences field, Elion devised the first antiviral drug to treat viral Herpes infections and was responsible for inventing an immunosuppressive drug key to organ transplants. Even after retirement, Elion also supervised the development of an AIDS treatment that prevents pregnant women from spreading the disease to their children.

Women like Gertrude Elion, a solid contributor to medicine and medical sciences, have made history for women and medical pioneers worldwide.

Here are some of the amazing women we keep in mind:

Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, a young mother visited The John Hopkins Hospital with vaginal bleeding. Upon examination, it was discovered that the young woman had a large, malignant tumor on her cervix. She began undergoing radium treatment, the best medical treatment at the time, and doctors biopsied her cells. Typically, samples of cervical cancer sent to the tissue lab would die quickly before researchers had an opportunity to study them. But these cells were different. Rather than dying, the young women’s cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.

Today, these cells nicknamed “HeLa,” are used to study the effects of hormones, drugs, toxins, and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They played a critical role in development of the polio vaccine, in the study of the genome and in how viruses work, and in testing the effects of radiations and poisons.

The cells belonged to Henrietta Lacks. Although she ultimately passed away in 1951, her cells continue to impact scientific developments and the world at large.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin was a British biophysicist born in 1920. Early in her career, she became very adept at understanding X-rays, molecular structures, and viruses. Franklin pioneered the use of X-rays to create images of crystallized solids in analyzing complex, unorganized matter. Her X-ray research facilitated improvements in WWII-era gas masks.

Dr. Franklin's most monumental discovery was the double-helix structure of DNA. She captured the structure in what became known as “Photograph 51.” The photo was acquired through 100 hours of X-ray exposure from a machine Franklin herself refined.

Out of spite, her colleague Maurice Wilkins shared Photo 51 without Franklin’s permission to competing scientist James Watson. The pair published their own DNA model in 1953 utilizing Franklin’s exploited research for the basis of their own. Wilkins and Watson were later part of a group awarded the Nobel Prize for the work just four years after Franklin’s passing in 1958.

Even now, Rosalind Franklin’s discoveries impact our daily lives. Her pioneering research on the structure of DNA and of viruses enabled today’s speedy response to COVID-19, and the European mission to Mars planned for 2023 will name their explorer in honor of her contributions to science.

During the American-Soviet space race, a group of female NASA employees proved to be indispensable assets that led to the first American orbit around Earth.

Mathematician Katherine Johnson provided calculation paths and trajectories that impressed superiors. It was ultimately her diligence that assured astronauts a safe, successful mission. She became a pioneering legacy involved in many projects that accelerated US space travel.

Mary Jackson had dreams of being an engineer. To meet the qualifications, Mary fought for the opportunity to enroll in an engineering program. She went on to become NASA’s first African-American female engineer working to improve the aerodynamics of planes.

Dorothy Vaughan was supervisor of the female African-American computing section of NASA at Langley. Recognizing the advanced technology systems being deployed by NASA, she took it upon herself to train her all-female staff to program the machines, allowing the team to keep their jobs and advance their careers.

These women known as the “Hidden Figures" are recognized today for their honorable service to the nation, advancements in equality, and contributions to the space program, and have since been honored with Congressional Gold Medals for their contributions.