As Women’s History month and the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 roll into one, we take this time to celebrate and call attention to the fearless females who have shaped the future of healthcare.
Here are some key figures in the history healthcare, alongside some of the trailblazers who are leading the charge against COVID-19.
Hungary-born Karikó started her career in 1970 around the genesis of mRNA research. She remained in Hungary for some time before being invited to work at Temple University in Philadelphia. From there, she packed up with her husband and young child, and travelled across the globe.
Once in the U.S., she continued her research at Temple, and later moved on to the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School. Here, she presented her findings outlining how mRNA could be used to fight disease, her ideas were considered ‘too radical’ for their time. After receiving multiple rejections for further research grants, she was demoted from her position at UPenn. Around this same time, she was also diagnosed with cancer.
Despite these obstacles, she persevered. She and her colleague at UPenn, Drew Weissman, collaborated to develop a method of leveraging synthetic mRNA to fight disease by changing how the immune system responds to viruses. Today, their breakthrough has become the foundation for the
Marcella Nunez-Smith, M.D
Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith is a physician currently serving as head of the White House’s COVID-19 health equity task force. Born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dr. Nunez-Smith grew up surrounded by those struggling with health inequity and preventable health conditions. Her father was one of these people – after battling uncontrolled high blood pressure for years, he suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed. Witnessing these inequalities ultimately influenced her decision to join the medical field.
She is currently an Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, Public Health and Management at Yale University. Today, she is spearheading the movement to bridge racial health disparities in the U.S. Her research is focused on addressing racial injustice and tackling challenges in the current health system to drive health equity in under-represented populations. As part of this, she is making recommendations to the Biden-Harris administration to ensure equitable allocation and distribution of essential COVID-19 resources and funding across the U.S. Her key priority is identifying outreach strategies to under-represented and marginalized communities whose healthcare needs have been historically underserved to reduce the harmful impact of COVID-19.
Antonia Novello, M.D.
Puerto-Rican born, Antonia Novello M.D. is recognized as the first woman and the first Hispanic person to hold the position of Surgeon General in the U.S. Novello’s introduction to the medical field began after she received a life-altering surgery for congenital megacolon after enduring 18 years of pain. Following the procedure, she dedicated her life to ensuring no one else had to go through the same debilitating experience.
She joined the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) in 1979 after discovering she was not well suited to direct patient care. At the USPHS, she assumed the role of co-ordinator for AIDS research, was later recognized by the White House and eventually sworn in as the 14th U.S. Surgeon General in 1990. Novello was among the first in her rank to focus on the health of women, children and minorities with a special focus on pediatric HIV/AIDS. She also launched and directed campaigns for early childhood health and injury prevention, as well as calling attention to domestic violence, underage drinking, and alcohol abuse. Today she is one of four former surgeons general to call for ‘National Vaccine Day’ to focus our nation’s attention on the importance of vaccination.
Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte
Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picott is recognized as the first Native American woman in the U.S. to receive a medical degree. Growing up on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska, Dr. LaFlesche Picotte was under pressure from the U.S. government to assimilate into white society.
Following a traditional Anglo-American education, she decided to study at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, where she was encouraged to become a mother and wife after graduation. Instead, she worked as a doctor for the Office of Indian Affairs, travelling to the homes of over 1,000 patients across 450 square miles, and working to combat public health crises such as TB and alcoholism. She married in 1894 and had two sons, who she often brought along to her house calls.
She was passionate about protecting the people on the Reservation from assimilation efforts, and devoted her work to educating them on their health and empowering them to make the best decisions for their care.
In 1913, with the support of her husband, she founded a hospital on the Omaha Reservation which served the community until the late 1940s. It was the first hospital constructed for a Native American Reservation that did not receive any federal funding. After years of devotion to her profession, Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte succumbed to chronic illness in 1915. Her legacy lives on in the restored structure of her hospital, now a National Historic Landmark, in Walthill, Nebraska.
Tu Youyou is a renowned Chinese pharmaceutical chemist, malariologist and Nobel Prize recipient. After suffering from Tuberculosis at the age of 16, Tu knew she wanted to pursue medicine and discover treatments for diseases like the one she had contracted. Tu studied pharmacology at Beijing Medical College, where she learned the chemical structures of active ingredients extracted from medicinal plants. Following graduation, she went on to work for the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
During her research, Project 523 was launched in China to help North Vietnam tackle a malaria outbreak, which had claimed the lives of many soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. Tu was assigned head of the project, travelled to Hainan Island in Southern China, and witnessed first-hand the impact of malaria on the human body. Tu and her team worked from ancient texts and therapies in folk medicine to identify over 2,000 potential remedies. In 1971, they successfully isolated an active compound found in sweet wormwood which would later be known as qinghaosu, or artemisinin that was found to treat the disease.
In the early 2000s, the World Health Organization officially issued recommendations for artemisinin-based therapeutics as a top-line treatment for malaria. In 2011, Tu received the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for her breakthrough discovery.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
Dr Kizzmekia Corbett is a viral immunologist for the Vaccine Research Centers at the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health. She is recognized as the scientific lead for vaccine research and considered a ‘rising star’ in the immunology community as she works in developing novel coronavirus vaccines, including immunization for COVID-19.
Following years of research, she discovered a stabilized version of the spike protein found on the surface of all coronaviruses which could be a key target for all vaccines and therapeutics. Corbett’s team partnered with Moderna in researching and kicking off trials for a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine which were first to enter clinical trials. She and her teams were also integral to the development of the Lilly therapeutic monoclonal antibody. Both have since been authorized for emergency use in the U.S., with millions of Americans already immunized.
Dr. Corbett works closely with vaccine-hesitant populations, including the Black community, to drive education and awareness about vaccine development and efficacy. She was recently named in Time100 Next 2021 for her scientific innovation. In this feature written by Anthony Fauci, her work is described as having a “substantial impact on ending the worst respiratory-disease pandemic in more than 100 years.”
CQ fluency is a proud Women and Minority owned business and is committed to elevating women’s voices in our mission to improve lives. We honor the accomplishments of these powerful women, and the hundreds of others whose innovation is central to the future of health equity worldwide.