All too often, women in science are not properly recognized for their discoveries, instead having their work attributed to male colleagues, supervisors, or even husbands.[i] History has routinely divorced them from their accomplishments, excluding their names from textbooks and overlooking them as accolades for the work are bestowed upon men. (Perhaps the most famous example of this is Rosalind Franklin, who used x-ray crystallography to prove the double-helical structure of DNA, only to unwittingly have her work stolen by two male colleagues who were then awarded the Nobel Prize.[ii])
August is National Immunization Awareness month, so we’ve decided to honor the occasion by pushing back against the bias and acknowledging a few of the incredible women – past and present – who are rocking the field of immunology. Vaccinations save an estimated 2.5 million lives globally each year. It is because of immunization that smallpox is a plague of the past, polio is nearly eradiated, and measles kills fewer children than ever.[iii] Through their work, these women have contributed to millions of saved lives, and we think that’s something worth celebrating!
Dorothy Horstmann and Isabel Morgan[iv]
Despite the lack of press reporting it, each of these women played a pivotal role in the process of discovery for the Polio vaccine. Horstmann identified the pathogenesis of polio, showing that the virus circulated in the blood before entering the central nervous system. (This directed scientists to work on an intervention that targeted the virus in the bloodstream, aiming to neutralize it before serious harm occurred.) Morgan conducted experiments to successfully immunize monkeys against the disease – a precursor to human vaccination.
This scientist proposed a new model of the body’s immune response that has implications for the way we treat cancer, sustain transplants, and immunize newborns. Her so-named Danger Model argues that our immune system mounts a response when it receives signals from injured tissue, rather than responding “blindly” when it detects foreign invaders. Of her discover, she notes, “A few scientists still aren’t listening, but I’m not going to do the work to make them. The evidence is there.”
Liu earned the nickname “The Mother of DNA Vaccines” from her students. By injecting DNA to initiate an immune response to HIV, she is researching how to provoke the body into producing protective proteins against the virus. This could lead to more stable vaccines that can be produced quickly enough to keep up with the rapid mutations HIV undergoes (mutations that render other vaccine forms ineffective).
The first scientist to clone and map the genes of HIV, Wong-Staal made a crucial step forward in allowing scientists to develop a diagnostic test for the virus. Her work also helped prove that HIV is the cause of AIDS. She continues her work looking for new ways to treat AIDS and other diseases.
Gates is the co-founder and co-chair of the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation. A key effort of this organization is to support and advocate for global health interventions, particularly immunization. The organization did not always appropriately acknowledge her role, originally calling itself the William H. Gates Foundation before adopting its current moniker. This foundation has given billions of dollars to the fight to eradicate diseases treatable via vaccination.
There are countless other women in science who deserve recognition for their lifesaving work. Who would you like to give a shout-out to? Tell us in the comments section!