In our second iteration of Women’s History Month 2021, RESET Bioscience is highlighting more women that changed the world with their inspiring contributions to wellness. From groundbreaking discoveries, glass ceiling shattering contributions, and perseverance to inspire us all, Women’s History Month serves as a reminder to us all to RESET the norm and pave the way. You may have heard of some of these women and others you may not have but we’d love to share more about amazing women doing the work.
Before she was the first Hispanic woman ever to hold the office of Surgeon General of the United States, Antonia Novello was a teenager who wanted to become a doctor after years of dealing with a medical condition that could only be corrected with surgery her family could not afford. Although they could not afford it, her condition was eventually fixed after two surgeries in her late teens. This issue was the spark that moved Antonia to her eventual career in medicine.
Her professional career began in Michigan in 1974, where she gained experience in pediatrics. In the years following she would move from pediatrics to private practice, and then in 1978 she joined the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. It was there that she became the deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and focused on pediatric AIDS. Through all this, she stayed in pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital and in 1982 Novello earned her degree in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.
Novello served two decades at the National Institute of Health, where she drafted national legislation regarding organ transplantation, a topic she felt passionate about after an aunt died of kidney failure when she was a young adult. Her efforts were recognized when she was appointed by George Bush to Surgeon General of the United States. As Surgeon General, Novello focused on minorities, women, and young people, speaking out against underage drinking, smoking, and making women and young adults aware of AIDS caused by drug use (i.e. sharing needles or otherwise). She also targeted a campaign against the tobacco industry for their blatant advertising aimed at children which became one of Novello’s most effective campaigns.
She continued to educate the public, especially regarding the rise in AIDS among women and young people. A 1993 report she authored advised against drug use and unprotected sex – even adding instructions on how to use condoms and clean needles. Novello was awarded a military honor, the Legion of Merit, by General Colin Powell during the Gulf War after she expedited the FDA approval for vaccines to be sent to the troops.
Novello didn’t stop after she served as Surgeon General though. From 1993-1996, Dr. Novello used her position as special representative to the UN Children’s Fund to explain her efforts to address the health and nutritional needs of women and children on a global scale.
In 1999, Antonia Novello was nominated to be the Commissioner of Health for the State of New York, one of the largest public health agencies in the country! She served until 2007, focusing efforts on improving Medicaid and Child Health Plus.
Dr. Novello led the way for public health, serving the public sector for most of her career, bringing health and wellness to the underserved.
One of the most famous female journalists of her time, Nellie Bly made a name for herself after publishing her six-part series Ten Days in a Mad-House. However, it wasn’t easy to get there. After losing her father at the age of six, Bly and her family moved to Indiana, where Bly attended a teaching college. She had to stop her education due to her family’s financial situation and ended up helping her mother run a boarding house. While working at the boarding house with her mother, Bly passed the time by reading The Pittsburgh Dispatch. While she read she noticed the paper’s largely negative representation of women throughout articles. Not one to keep quiet, Bly wrote an open letter to the editor pointing out the negative representation. The editor read the letter, and not only printed it, but offered her a position at the paper as a columnist.
She became a popular columnist at the paper butBly quickly noticed that she was only writing pieces addressed to women. Wanting more serious work that addressed the entire population, Bly started searching for a paper that would give her that opportunity. She saw that opportunity in New York City and Nellie Bly moved to the Big Apple. As a woman, it was extremely difficult for her to find work, so she took things into her own hands. She stormed the offices of The New York World wanting to write a story of the immigrant experience in the United States. The editor ultimately said no, but gave her the chance to investigate the asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Bly didn’t just accept the challenge to research how patients were treated on the island, but she took it a step forward and pretended to be a patient to gain admission.
Her six-part expose of the terrible conditions on the island not only got readers interested but led to a grand-jury investigation of the asylum and much-needed improvements for patient care in general. But Bly didn’t stop there. Her hands-on approach not only created the practice of investigative journalism, but it led her to author further articles about the conditions of sweatshops and jails, and she exposed bribery in the lobbyist system.
The highest point of her career came on November 14th, 1889 when she traveled the world in 72 days! Her travels were documented by The World daily, even starting a contest for readers to try and guess how long the trip would take. She even ended up holding the World Record for a few months. Bly took a break from journalism after her husband died and she inherited his massive manufacturing company, but she returned later in her life to cover the Suffrage Movement and World War I. She passed away in 1922 while still working as a writer.
By exposing the conditions of the medical system, sweatshops, and jails, Bly brought attention and ultimately, change to RESET the care of those impacted.
Leta Stetter Hollingworth
Known especially for her contributions to women’s psychology of women and education for gifted children, Leta Stetter Hollingworth started her career as a writer. After years of writing in journals, she pursued that career in college to get a B.A. in English. The University of Nebraska was where she met her soon-to-be husband Harry Hollingworth, and when he left to go to Columbia University to pursue a graduate degree, she stayed behind to complete her undergraduate degree. Years later, while Leta was teaching in Nebraska, Harry got a job as an assistant professor and she went to join him and married Harry on New Year’s Eve of 1908.
Hollingworth planned to continue her career as a teacher in New York, however, she found that in New York City, married women were not allowed to be teachers. Frustrated by the current state of women’s rights, she started her interest in women’s activism. During her time of unemployment, Hollingworth took courses at Columbia Teachers College while assisting her husband research the effects of caffeine on mental and motor functions for Coca-Cola. In 1913, she earned her M.A. in Education and added a Ph.D. three years later. Her doctoral dissertation was on the topic of the effects of the menstrual cycle on a women’s mental and motor functions. Daily performance checks over three months combatted the myth that a woman’s period affected her performance thus proving it to be incorrect.
While she was taking her graduate courses, Hollingworth found a job at the Clearing House for Mental Defectives and at Bellevue Hospital. At both of those jobs, she became interested in psychology, particularly the psychology of gifted children. Hollingworth became an expert in intelligence testing. Due to her Ph.D. and renowned research, she was offered a teaching position in the Education Department at Columbia. It was there where she became a member of the National Education Association and the American Psychological Association.
In 1928, Hollingworth published The Psychology of the Adolescent, where she wrote her insights regarding gifted children she observed in her career. In that publication, she noted that many children she saw who were having issues in school were not limited intellectually, which was the assumption made by teachers, instead, they were gifted. Her research also found that these same children had emotional or social issues that were common among adolescents. The Psychology of the Adolescent served as the standard text in the field for years.
Hollingworth’s research in the psychology field – especially of women and children – led her to develop the first-ever course on gifted children. Hollingworth passed away in 1939 due to cancer, however, her writing and strong voice led to the establishment of certification requirements for psychologists.
Gertrude Belle Elion
Nobel Prize winner Gertrude Belle Elion was the daughter of immigrants. In 1937, she graduated with a degree in biochemistry from Hunter College in New York City, but she was unable to land a graduate research position because she was a woman. So, that same year, she became a lab assistant at the New York Hospital School of Nursing. She furthered her education in 1941, where she took classes at New York University intending to receive her Ph.D. During this time, she was working several other jobs as an assistant organic chemist, a research chemist, and a physics and chemistry professor, leading her to have a hard time dedicating her time to solely focus on her degree and thus never received her Ph.D.
In 1944, Elion joined what was then called the Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories – now known as GlaxoSmithKline – as an assistant, and later colleague of George H. Hitchings. For the next four decades, Elion and Hitchings worked together to develop many pharmaceutical drugs that worked against many illnesses including leukemia, gout, malaria, and more. Their research process was different from the scientists of the day. They avoided the typical trial-and-error method that their colleagues were still using; instead, they examined the difference between the biochemistry of normal human cells and those of cancer cells and other disease-causing agents to form their hypotheses.
Using this method, they took the information they found and formulated drugs that could either kill or slow down the reproduction of specific pathogens, leaving the normal cells undamaged. Elion and Hitchings’ method’s new focus on understanding the basic biochemical process took out a lot of guesswork of producing new drugs. By 1950, they successfully created two compounds that could interfere with the formation of leukemia cells. The finding of Diaminopurine and Thioguanine could finally put leukemia patients in remission. While the new drugs were successful in what they did, they were also too toxic and would cause patients severe pain and vomiting. So Elion worked to create a less toxic compound. Her research led her to replace a sulfur atom in the compound with an oxygen atom, creating 6-MP.
Elion went on to discover other drugs including a viable treatment for gout (allopurinol) and an immunosuppressive drug (azathioprine). Her discovery of azathioprine made it possible for people with compromised immune systems to get organ transplants without their body rejecting the new organ.
In 1967 Elion was appointed Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at Wellcome, and in that position, she focused mostly on testing compounds to create an antiviral drug. The successful approach led to the development of AZT, the AIDS drug. Upon the creation of AZT, the full team – Elion, Hitchings, and their colleague James Whyte Black – received the 1988 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
Though she never got a chance to receive a Ph.D., George Washington University and Brown University gave her honorary doctorates. Gertrude Belle Elion was also one of the only women to receive the American Chemical Society’s Garvan Medal, which she received in 1968. Eight years before her death, Elion was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991.
Elion paved the way for pharmaceuticals, providing a better way to establish new drugs and better wellness for all.
Currently, a professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at Columbia University, Wafaa El-Sadr is also the founder and director of ICAP – a global leader in HIV education, prevention, and care. She graduated from Cairo University in 1974 with her Doctor of Medicine. Following that degree, she went on to get her Master of Public Health from Columbia University in 1991, and finally her Master of Public Administration from Harvard University in 1996. El-Sadr began her career during the HIV epidemic in the United States.
At the time, she was the Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Harlem Hospital, and in that position, she developed successful methods f0r HIV/AIDS prevention through research and innovative models of care in the community. She became a leader in the global fight against HIV by supplying health care systems in Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa with strategies for confronting the impact of the epidemic. El-Sadr also leveraged investments in HIV to ensure that their health care systems were strengthened.
In 2003, El-Sadr founded ICAP at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health to support the scale-up of HIV care in Africa. She is the principal investigator for numerous research initiatives in the group, and also a member of the NIH Fogarty International Center Advisory Board. In 2009, she was appointed to the National Academy of Medicine.
El-Sadr has shared her expertise in global health during the COVID-19 pandemic as a member of the NYC Test and Trace Group, Columbia University’s COVID-19 Task Force, and the Mayor’s Scientific Advisory Council.
Public health and safety, especially where pandemics and epidemics are concerned are critical and El-Sadr’s role in prevention, research, and care has changed the world for the better.
Throughout history, women have been leading the charge for more female voices in not just the wellness sector, but everywhere. No one’s path was a simple one. Often these women had to forge their road in fields catered specifically to men or combat the prejudices looming over them. So if you’re working on an invention, researching your own scientific findings, or just trying to find inspiration, keep going. You may be one of the next voices we focus on at RESET Bioscience and beyond.