Women in Math: Pioneers in Biology and Medicine

“My whole life is devoted unreservedly to the service of my sex. The study and practice of medicine is in my thought but one means to a great end…the true ennoblement of woman.” – Elizabeth Blackwell, first US female physician

For centuries, women have cared for the sick and aided in childbirth, whether it be for their own families or helping as nurses. Many advances in biology and medicine are thanks to amazing women, like Elizabeth Blackwell, who are pioneers in these fields. These are some of their accomplishments: 

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910): First woman to earn a medical degree in the US

Every woman doctor can thank Elizabeth Blackwell for her determination in pioneering the way for women to earn medical degrees. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) shares a brief history of this incredible woman. “Before being accepted to medical school, Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, was rejected by more than 10 schools for men—no schools for women yet existed—and she refused a mentor’s suggestion that she disguise herself as a man to gain admittance. Blackwell chose to pursue medicine after a deathly ill friend insisted that she would have received better care from a woman. Ultimately, she was admitted to New York’s Geneva Medical College due to a misunderstanding: Male students who were asked their opinion agreed to admit her because they thought the request was a prank. After graduating in 1849, Blackwell went on to co-found Manhattan’s New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children to serve low-income patients and support the training of women doctors.” 

Alice Ball (1892-1916): Female chemist who developed treatment for Hansen’s Disease

Alice Ball,​ an American chemist, achieved remarkable accomplishments​ at​ a young age. Born​ оn July 24, 1892,​ іn Seattle, Washington, she earned degrees​ іn chemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry from the University​ оf Washington. After relocating​ tо Hawaii, Ball made history​ as both the first woman and the first African-American​ tо earn​ a master’s degree from the University​ оf Hawaii. Subsequently, she became the university’s first female chemistry professor. Ball’s groundbreaking work focused​ оn finding​ a treatment for Hansen’s disease, also known​ as leprosy. She utilized mathematical principles​ іn her studies​ tо analyze chemical properties​ оf chaulmoogra oil, derived from the seeds​ оf​ a tropical evergreen tree (Hydnocarpus wightianus). Using her expertise​ іn chemistry, Ball devised​ a water-soluble solution that could​ be safely injected, revolutionizing the treatment approach​ оf leprosy. This innovative treatment method, known​ as the “Ball Method,” remained​ іn use until the 1940s. This children’s book about Alice Ball brings her unique accomplishments to light!

Gerty Cori (1896-1957): First woman in the US to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Anyone with blood sugar issues knows the importance of monitoring glucose levels. Gerty Cori made tremendous contributions in that area as a pioneer in biochemistry. She and her husband Carl received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947 “for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen” (an important step in glucose monitoring). “The ‘Cori cycle’ is their explanation for the movement of energy in the body—from muscle, to the liver, and back to muscle. Glycogen in muscles is converted to sugar (glucose) when energy is needed to fund physical activity, but the muscles leave some of the sugar as lactic acid, for later use. The lactic acid is recycled into glycogen by the liver, which is then stored in the muscles until needed. Their discovery of this process was especially useful for the treatment of diabetes, but it was also the first time the cycle of carbohydrates in the human body had been fully understood and explained,” notes Changing the Face of Medicine

Virginia Apgar (1909-1974): Pioneer in infant health 

Dr. Virginia Apgar was​ a groundbreaking figure​ іn the medical fields​ оf women’s health and anesthesiology. She is best known for her pivotal role​ іn reducing infant death rates. Initially aspiring​ tо become​ a surgeon, Apgar shifted her focus​ tо anesthesiology due​ tо limited career opportunities for women​ іn surgery. Despite facing gender barriers, she rose​ tо prominence​ іn her field, becoming the first woman​ tо achieve​ a full professorship​ at Columbia University’s College​ оf Physicians and Surgeons. Her research, including investigations into the effects​ оf anesthesia​ оn childbirth, leveraged mathematical principles​ tо analyze data and develop objective scoring systems.​ In 1952, she introduced the Apgar scoring system, which assesses newborns’ vital signs within minutes​ оf birth. This system, based​ оn mathematical calculations​ оf parameters such​ as heart rate, breathing effort, muscle tone, reflexes, and color, has proven instrumental​ іn identifying newborns​ іn need​ оf immediate medical attention. Apgar’s innovative use​ оf mathematics revolutionized neonatal care, significantly improving outcomes for newborns and laying the foundation for modern neonatology. For more information about Dr. Apgar, consider this storybook about her life-saving invention!

Patricia Goldman-Rakic (1937-2003): Pioneer in neuroscience

Nature Journal describes Patricia as a “world-renowned neuroscientist, whose groundbreaking discoveries about the frontal cortex of the brain helped scientists to probe into the neurobiological basis of normal behavior and such complex disorders as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.” In 2008, she was posthumously inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. They noted that her “pioneering multi-disciplinary research in working memory and the brain’s prefrontal cortex was groundbreaking and led scientists to deeper knowledge of the brain than ever thought possible.”

Sylvia Earle (1935-present): Pioneer in marine biology and oceanography

National Geographic reports she is “called ‘Her Deepness’ by the New Yorker and the New York Times, ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress, and the first ‘Hero for the Planet.’” National Geographic went on to explain how “Sylvia is an oceanographer, explorer, author, and lecturer with experience as a field research scientist. As the first female chief scientist at NOAA, she pioneered many firsts in the world of oceanography. Her wish: to save life as we know it by protecting the oceans.” Click here to learn more about her life’s adventures and accomplishments. 

Wondering how to inspire the girls in your classroom to learn more about biology and medicine? Check out these resources, many of which involve math.  

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