Famous Women Innovators You May Not Have Heard of

Famous Women
Petra Volna, PhD, writes about famous women

By Petra Volna, PhD

SEATTLE – June 25, 2013 

Kristiina Hiukka, the founder of Women in Innovation, likes to do a short quiz when meeting people: “Can you name a famous woman significant for her innovation?” Interestingly, she would add, most people come up with one famous woman over and over again: Marie Curie. As Jane Lee has most recently argued in her National Geographic article, this may be due to the past long-standing trend that women were not recognized for their discoveries and over time their work was assigned to their colleagues holding senior positions who were almost exclusively men. Or maybe their discoveries didn’t find their way to various textbooks as yet. I’m cautiously optimistic that this will happen, as women other than Marie Curie have been awarded the Nobel Prize and also thanks to outlets like WIN. Here are three women with inspiring life stories and who are also excellent examples that women are perfectly capable of sparking innovation.

Virginia ApgarPioneer anesthesiologist working primarily in the delivery room. As such she assisted number of complicated deliveries and revived newborns. Often puzzled how to meet the newborns needs when the pediatrician was rarely present immediately after birth and the obstetrician was too occupied with the mother’s condition. She began to appreciate that some complications can be avoided if noted without delay, and devised a simple score for all signs that can be assessed without special equipment: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration or APGAR score. APGAR score became a mainstay procedure to evaluate newborns immediately after birth. Although first presented at an international meeting in 1952, it is still used in hospitals around the world, and helps identify newborns in distress. It is the irony of the clever acronym that hides Virginia Apgar in the plain view.  She receives our recognition as one of the famous women of innovation.

Barbara McClintock – Devoted geneticist studying chromosomes of corn Zea mays as elements key for the inheritance of certain characteristics displayed by kernels. Awarded PhD in botany in 1927 at Cornell University, she was recognized as an expert in cytogenetics by many renowned scientists in the field including Thomas Hunt Morgan, distinguished geneticist and later a Nobel Prize winner. Still she faced lack of funding and difficulty finding stable academic position because of her gender. In 1931 McClintock together with her PhD student Harriet Creighton published evidence for crossing-over. An important process for mixing the genetic information inherited from the father and the mother when reproductive cells are formed. Crossing-over enables parts of chromosomes from the two distinct sets to be exchanged in any given pair during meiosis, a special type of cell division producing cells with a single set of chromosomes instead the usual two. McClintock is mostly known for her discovery of transposable controlling elements also called “jumping genes”, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983, over 30 years after her initial reports on this phenomenon. Sometimes even a Noble Prize doesn’t make a woman famous and known beyond her discipline.

Gertrude Elion – Chemist by training and an enthusiastic therapeutic drug designer who spent her very productive career at Burroughs Wellcome, nowadays known as GlaxoSmithKline. She was hired in 1946 by George Hitchings, with whom she worked on therapies that interfered with the DNA building process and thus effectively stopped the growth of rapidly dividing cells, such as tumor cells in cancer. Elion first synthesized purine analog, 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP), which was released for commercial use in 1953. 6-MP turned out to be effective for leukemia treatment in conjunction with other drugs and later also proved powerful as immunosuppressive agent in patients undergoing organ transplantation. It is still used today mainly in therapy of certain autoimmune diseases. Elion was involved in research leading to another purine analog, allopurinol, very popular drug for gout therapy. She was also part of the discovery of another important drug based on similar principles as 6-MP and allopurinol, but intended for therapy of difficult viral infections. Acyclovir, marketed as Zovirax, has been used with success against herpes infections and shingles. In 1988 Elion shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with her long-term colleague and mentor George Hitchings and pharmacologist James Black. Elion and Hitchings were recognized for introducing the concept of more rational approach to drug discovery that was based on the understanding of chemical and physiological processes.

These famous women have more in common other than the fact that they were all childless, as it seemed that career in science, medicine or any other field and having a family was mutually exclusive. They all loved their work and were excellent thinkers able to bring new ideas to various fields, which I believe counts as innovation.

Here are two main sources that I used and that are well worth reading, as they list even more women innovators:

American Women Scientists. 23 Inspiring Biographies, 1900-2000 by Moira Davison Reynolds

6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism by Jane J. Lee published in National Geographic on May 19th 2013: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130519-women-scientists-overlooked-dna-history-science/

Petra Volna, PhD, is a medical writer with background in science and pharmacy. She is interested in facts and contexts that shape new discoveries.

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