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International Women's Day: Women of Science

This year, we’ve all had to think waaaay too much about medical stuff. The pandemic, lockdowns, vaccines...it has all got us wondering, 'What have some of the medical milestones of the past been, and what part have women played in the world of science and medicine?' We are final year history students here at Leeds Beckett, and this is our contribution to Women’s History Month. We have chosen three women to give you a little taste of our research into women of science:

  • Susan La Flesche Picotte, from North America
  • Francoise Barre-Sinoussi from France
  • Rosalind Franklin, from right here in the UK
Published on 02 Mar 2021
Rosalind Franklin looking through microscope

This history covers three centuries and two continents, and we hope you will agree that these women’s achievements deserves some recognition:

Black and white portrait of Susan La Flesche Picotte

Susan La Flesche Picotte

Susan La Flesche Picotte

A lot of people imagine a scientist as a white man in a lab coat. Susan La Flesche Picotte, (b. 17 June 1865), was a Native American doctor and social reformer who is acknowledged as one of the first Native Americans to earn a medical degree. Picotte was born on the Omaha Reservation in Eastern Nebraska and cared deeply for the community where she grew up. As a child, Picotte watched a Native American die because the local white doctor would not give her care which acted as inspiration for her future career. It was uncommon for women, especially Native American women at the time, to study in the medical field. However, Picotte was accepted to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, one of the few medical schools to accept female students at that time. 

Picotte made it her job to not just educate people on the reservation about health but also to care for them as a doctor, and pursue reform. There were many social problems within the Omaha reservation which negatively impacted the health of the Native American community, the largest of these being alcoholism, which Picotte went on to discourage. She even persuaded the Office of Indian Affairs to ban liquor sales in towns within the reservation. Picotte travelled hours to visit sick patients either on foot or horseback and cared for patients suffering from tuberculosis, influenza, cholera, dysentery and trachoma. In her pursuit of social reform, Picotte also received money for the Omaha reservation which was owed to them for the sale of their land. Before dying on 18 September 1915, Picotte moved to Bancroft and set up a private practice which served both white and native patients.

Picotte is an important woman in medicine who deserves to be remembered, not particularly for discovering something which led to a scientific breakthrough, but for showing extreme commitment to the Native American community which didn’t have the same access to healthcare. Picotte witnessed this unfair treatment in her childhood and went on to ensure that her community would no longer need to rely on other people for the healthcare they required. 

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

Before the Covid Pandemic there was the AIDS pandemic. Maybe you’ve been watching the new Channel 4 drama, ‘Its a Sin’, which tells the heart-breaking story of the AIDS epidemic from the point of view of its victims. Almost no one knows that one of the leading figures in HIV research was a French woman by the name of Francoise Barré-Sinoussi.

Born in Paris 1947, Barré-Sinoussi at a very young age developed an interest in wildlife, 'Even the smallest of insects could capture my attention for hours.’ She studied biomedical science at the University of Paris. Two years into her studies, Barré-Sinoussi wanted a part-time job to ensure she was on the right career path. She was eventually accepted by the Pasteur Institute. This part-time job soon took over her studies, meaning she would often skip lectures to work but her grades increased due to her hands-on experience.

Barré-Sinoussi received her PhD in 1975, then interned at the U.S National Institutes of Health before returning to the Pasteur Institute. It was at this point where she faced sexism in the field. In an interview the assistant to the director of the Pasture Institute replied to her question asking if she could apply for a job, ‘No way, women never have done anything in science, you better think immediately to revise your career plan.’ Francois used this as a driving force in her career.

It was this drive that led her to be as successful as she was in the research of HIV. Barré-Sinoussi was part of a unit run by Luc Montagnier, who focused on the retrovirus. In 1982 a virologist from a Paris hospital came asking for help. There was an alarming new epidemic targeting homosexual men. Could a retrovirus be the cause?

Retroviruses are particularly nasty infectious agents, which trick host cells into believing its (the retrovirus) DNA is part of the host cell’s code. The host then copies it over and over, making a swarm of new retroviruses. Just two weeks after this proposal, Barre-Sinoussi and her team isolated what would later be named the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV. This discovery led to blood tests to detect the infection and finally to antiretroviral drugs which saves AIDS patients.

After her discovery of the virus she travelled throughout Africa and South-East Asia, advocating for better public education about AIDS prevention, and establishing centres that could identify and treat AIDS cases. The pressure was so intense that once antiretroviral therapy was discovered in 1996, Barré-Sinoussi fell into a depression, and pulled back from her public commitments. She soon returned to the fight and officially retired in 2017.

Francois Barré-Sinoussi has been recognised in the field with her 2008 Nobel peace prize amongst many others awards. However, her name is not widely known for the amazing discovery which has saved millions of lives from such a dreadful virus. Francois faced a lot of sexism in her field as women at the time had very little to do with science, or that was the attitude many had. Despite this she pushed through and once again is someone who has saved millions of lives both through her discovery and through being a strong advocate for the education around HIV.

Rosalind Franklin looking through microscope

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin

Without the discovery of DNA and its two-strand structure, there are so many things we wouldn’t have in medicine, including some of the new Covid vaccines based on mRNA, and we wouldn't be able to target the new virus in amazingly effective ways. But did you know that one of the people who discovered the structure of DNA was a young woman working at King’s College in London?

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was an English chemist and X-ray Crystallographer whose work played a pivotal role in Crick and Watson’s discovery of the DNA double helix polymer. Specifically, Franklin discovered the density of DNA and established that the molecules existed in a helical conformation. However, Franklin did not receive anywhere near the credit and recognition that Crick and Watson did. Franklin died of ovarian watches four years before Crick and Watson received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.

However, there is some controversy surrounding Franklin’s work and how Crick and Watson came to use it. Franklin worked as a research associate at King’s College in London, where another scientist named Maurice Wilkins was conducting his own research. Maurice mistook Franklin for an assistant, rather than a lead researcher. Wilkins was in contact with Crick and Watson, and it was he who showed them the famous ‘Photo 51’, which was part of Franklin’s work; she was not aware of it being shared. Franklin’s work was key to deciphering the structure of DNA, but it was Crick, Watson and Wilkins who received the credit and the award. It is important to note that Crick did recognise the immense significance of her contribution after her death, but it was minor in comparison to the praise he and Watson received.

What was Photo 51?

This has been called the most important photo ever taken, by scientists, historians and journalists. It is an X-Ray diffraction image that determined the helical nature of double helix strands.

There are various opinions regarding the shady, underhanded nature of the sharing of Franklin’s research, as some believe that this behaviour would have been the same if she was a man as they were chasing the breakthrough, while others have suggested that they were incredibly sexist and did not credit her with the respect and recognition she deserved. As a result of Franklin’s death four years prior, we do not know whether she would have received the same recognition, however, she has not received anywhere near the adequate recognition since her death in history, which is an all too common fact for the women of history.

Conclusion

These three women have really inspired us. They made such important contributions to science, but for us it is also important to remember them, because they had to go against people’s expectations to get to where they were. Women can often be overlooked, but without diversity, scientific discoveries would be happening at a much slower pace. Perhaps lots of girls growing up in the Covid era will be inspired to take up medical research themselves and be the ones to make some of the important discoveries in the future!

With help from Sibel Kurum.

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