Eve Of The Millennium

by Stephanie Stahl

For many people, the first healing touch was administered by a mother who prepared hot soup to alleviate cold symptoms, rubbed ointment on a stuffy chest and/or delivered children's doses of medicine to reduce a fever. The idea of women in medicine seems perfectly natural from our earliest memories.

In days gone by, women in medicine were nurses and nuns trained in the healing arts. Some nurses, such as Florence Nightingale and Margaret Sanger, achieved a respectable reputation and widespread recognition. In the 1800s, some pioneering women earned medical degrees and became doctors. Since then, some women have possessed the smarts and passion for their medical research to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. These days, roughly half of all MD's are earned by women.

The first women to consider are some of the trailblazers who were the first women to become doctors. The first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. was Elizabeth Blackwell. She was British-born in Bristol, England-until she became a naturalized American citizen soon after she graduated at the head of her class from Geneva Medical College in 1849.

Blackwell applied to many medical schools and was consistently denied admittance only because she was a woman. Interestingly enough, Geneva College accepted her application only because the faculty and students had believed that her application had been submitted as a prank by a rival medical school. With hard work, perseverance and dedication, Blackwell earned the respect of most of her peers and professors by the time that she graduated.

Blackwell was one of the first advocates of preventive medicine, women's health care and personal hygiene for physicians as a means to reduce the spread of infectious diseases. The efforts and determination of Blackwell inspired other women to become physicians; even her sister, Emily, became a doctor.

In 1870, two years after France allowed women to become doctors, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was awarded her M.D. from the University of Paris. Anderson was the first female physician in Britain and the first woman to become a member of the British Medical Association. She established a clinic for women and children that evolved into a full hospital, which was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in 1918. She truly paved the way for future generations of women to become doctors when she gave a sizable donation to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine with the stipulation that the newly established school admit both men and women.

With the Russell-Gurney Act of 1876, England began to allow women to become physicians. After Anderson retired from medicine, she became England's first female mayor; she held office for two terms. Sophia Jex-Blake was the first woman to become a doctor in Scotland. She was awarded a M.D. from the University of Bern in Switzerland and her second M.D. came from the Irish College of Physicians in Dublin. Her interest in medicine was nurtured by Dr. Lucy Sewall in Boston, Massachusetts.

Jex-Blake founded the first medical school for women in Scotland in the 1880's. (Her medical school for women was rendered obsolete when the University of Edinburgh began to accept women into its medical school.) Jex-Blake established the London School of Medicine for Women with which Anderson was closely affiliated for many years. The school has since become part of the University of London.

Since the days of the vigorous, ground-breaking pursuit of gender equity in medical education and medical practice, some women have achieved greatness in the form of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. A gentleman recently told me that "X's are prettier in pairs". Evidently, he knows that women are born geneticists.

For example, Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology in 1983 for her work with transposable elements as applied to genetics, i.e. the mobility of genes on chromosomes. McClintock was the seventh woman to be honored with a Nobel Prize in science. The Nobel Committee characterized McClintock's work as "one of the two great discoveries of our time in genetics." The other great discovery was, of course, the double helix structure of deoyribonucleic acid (DNA).

You might recall Watson and Crick of the double helix fame. Rosalind Elsie Franklin invented a technique to photograph DNA and her work clearly showed the double helix structure of DNA. A less-than-gentlemanly colleague "shared" her work with Watson and Crick. Fortunately, her contributions to the discovery of DNA structure have not gone unnoticed. (See the words of Watson from the epilogue to his The Double Helix at the end of this article. The final words in his book concerning his Nobel Prize winning research are high praise for Rosalind Franklin. Franklin died four years before Watson and Crick received their Nobel Prize.)

The 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine was shared by Rita Levi-Montalcini and her student, Stanley Cohen, for their research of growth factors. More specifically, Levi-Montalcini is recognized for her discovery of the factor that promotes cellular growth in the peripheral nervous system. [Author's Note: I recall reading an article about Levi-Montalcini in the mid-80's. Her early experiments were performed on chicken eggs on a farm in Czechoslovakia during WWII. Chicken eggs! Remarkable woman.]

Two years later, Gertrude Elion Belle shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with George Herbert Hitchings, an American chemist, and Sir James Whyte Black, a British pharmacologist. Elion and Hitchings blocked cellular DNA replication by introducing chemical compounds that mimicked and took the place of key nucleotides. Since different cells manufacture different sequences of nucleotides, Elion and Hitchings were able to develop compounds that specifically targeted the proliferation of harmful cells and left healthy cells to mature normally. Their techniques were revolutionary when they were developed in the 1940's.

Now that you are familiar with the background of some of the women in medicine, you must meet a refined, beautiful, young woman who is currently in medical school. (Well, I certainly can't let you get away without meeting one of my friends, can I?)

Caulley Fonvielle graduated from Vanderbilt University - magna cumme laude. Her major was in molecular biology and her minor was in Art History. She spent time after her undergraduate years as a research assistant and has just finished her first year in medical school at Vanderbilt. She must choose her area of specialization by her third year; however, she already has her heart set on Pediatrics.

When discussing her medical career, Caulley will give you an earful about her research supervisor, Gisela Mosig. Mosig has researched the modes of initiation of DNA synthesis in bacteriophage T4 and chloroplasts of Chlamydomonas. Caulley not only has an excellent background in medical training but she also has a personal role model in Gisela Mosig.

In Caulley's words, "I've never looked for people to treat me differently because I'm a woman. But that's because I've never had to." That's a far cry from Elizabeth Blackwell's experiences and we all benefit from the freedom of intelligent and vibrant women who desire a medical career.

Clearly, the role of women in medicine has changed significantly over time. Over the last century, women have been allowed to enter the medical profession with increasing acceptance. Certainly, the first women who lit the way for the generations that followed them into medicine, the women who have made outstanding contributions to medicine and the women who are currently finding success in medicine deserve our respect and admiration. The future of medicine is brighter for having the feminine touch.

"Historically speaking, it has generally been deemed far more appropriate for ladies to marry MD's than to earn them."
Autumn Stevens

"The Doctor's Motto: Have patients."
Ethel Watts Mumford

"All of these people [mentioned in this book], should they desire, can indicate events and details they remember differently. But there is one unfortunate exception. In, 1958, Rosalind Franklin died at the early age of thirty-seven. Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something about her achievements. The X-ray work she did at King's [College] is increasingly regarded as superb. The sorting out of the A and B forms, by itself, would have made her reputation; even better was her 1952 demonstration, using Patterson superposition methods, that the phosphate groups must be on the outside of the DNA molecule. Later, when she moved to Bernal's lab, she took up work on tobacco mosaic virus and quickly extended our qualitative ideas about helical construction into a precise quantitative picture, definitely establishing the essential helical parameters and locating the ribonucleic chain halfway out from the central axis.

"Because I was then teaching in the States, I did not see her as often as did Francis [Crick], to whom she frequently came for advice or when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed with her reasoning. By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realizing years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosalind's exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death."
James D. Watson
The Double Helix

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