Celebrating Women’s History Month
Each year, March 1st begins a month-long celebration of women’s history, and for 2022, the theme of Women’s History Month is “women providing healing and promoting hope”. This is particularly poignant after more than two years of a global pandemic. It recognizes the work of women in the frontline of health and caregiving as well as the role of women in cultures across the world in providing healing and hope, throughout history.
So here, we celebrate four women from the history books who have shaped medicine today.
Mary Seacole was a nurse and businesswoman born in Jamaica in 1805 to a Jamaican mother and Scottish father. Being of mixed heritage and female in the 1850s, it wasn’t an easy time for Mary, but she didn’t let that stop her. During the Crimean War, Mary traveled to London and applied at the War Office to become part of the nursing contingent for convalescing officers. They turned her down, so she did what any self-respecting medical professional would do in the face of adversity – and set up her own “British Hotel” behind the enemy lines during the war and tended to wounded officers. Mary is now recognized as the first nurse practitioner the world had seen and she influenced the opening of the Florence Nightingale Nurse Training School.
Yoshioka Yayoi opened the Tokyo Women’s Medical University in 1900, a full 12 years before the Japanese government actually made it legal for women to practice medicine. Yoshioka was also a suffragist and spent her life campaigning for women’s rights and the need for female education. She was also instrumental in advocating proper sex education and became a leading figure in numerous wartime women’s associations. She now has an award named in her honor, given out each year by the Japan Medical Women’s Association.
Having dedicated her life’s research to develop a method of x-ray diffraction, Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 without being given recognition for her outstanding contribution to science. Her work gave rise to the understanding of the structure of DNA, and it’s alleged that another scientist, Maurice Wilkins, used her imagery without her consent. Wilkins, along with James Watson and Francis Crick went on to receive the Nobel Prize after Rosalind’s death. However, she is now known as an essential investigator in the discovery of the double helix shape of DNA, despite never receiving any award while she was alive.
A tobacco farmer from Southern Virginia, Henriette Lacks never quite realized her impact on medical science. After developing cervical cancer at 31 years old in 1951, a scientist took cells from her tumor to create the first “immortal line of human cells” that would go on to be used by researchers still to this day. The so-called HeLa cells have an extraordinary ability to survive and reproduce and they now underpin modern medicine having been used to develop treatments for cancer, infectious diseases, and immunological conditions. Now, more than 100 years after her birth, there are calls for Henrietta to be recognized for her contribution to medicine.