New book hails groundbreaking work by 52 women in science, medicine and technology
Talented women were overshadowed in male-dominated science fields
Book hails anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar, toxicologist Alice Hamilton, neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini
For decades, stories have gone largely untold about world-changing accomplishments by dozens of female pioneers in science, medicine and technology.
Author Rachel Swaby’s 2015 book, “Headstrong: 52 Women who Changed Science-and the World,” sheds fresh light on these fascinating women who pushed themselves to succeed in fields that were overwhelmingly male-dominated.
A healthcare standard for newborns
Anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar, for example, climbed the career ladder during a time when anesthesiology wasn’t recognized as a medical specialty.
“Virginia Apgar had such amazing energy and such an energetic mind,” Swaby said.
For eleven years she directed the anesthesia division at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital. But in 1949, when her division was upgraded to a department, she was passed over for the chair position in favor of a male colleague.
Science and technology
So Apgar moved on to work with infants.
She found that there was no standard of comparison for newborns. Without a method for judging comparatively the overall health of new babies, many would go home with undiagnosed problems that doctors failed to recognize.
For mothers, the name Apgar will likely ring a bell.
Apgar invented the APGAR scoring system (Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration), which doctors around the world use daily to determine newborn baby health. Before its introduction in the 1950s, there was no standardized way to compare the health of newborns. “It was a huge public health breakthrough,” Swaby said.
Within the first five minutes of birth, babies are rated from zero to ten on the five different criteria.
She went on to shift the March of Dimes from a polio-fighting organization to one that focuses on health problems of infants.
Making workplaces healthier
Another female science pioneer, toxicologist Alice Hamilton, used unusual research methods to reveal unhealthy conditions in factories.
In the early 1900s, while researching lead poisoning in factories, Hamilton found that managers preferred to hire men with families. Family men had more to lose if they were fired for being sick. These men fought harder to keep working through their bouts with lead poisoning, Hamilton discovered, because they could least afford to lose their jobs.
“She’s one of my favorites,” Swaby said “The way that she did her science reminds me a lot of reporting.” She targeted lead-using industries and personally visited plants where she conducted interviews.
When plant managers caught on to her research, they banned her from their factories. So, she would get her evidence elsewhere, by going to hospitals and pulling medical records, Swaby said. Eventually “she became the foremost expert on industrial health in the United States.”
Her work resulted in a long list of manufacturing processes that involved using lead inside buildings. Many of these buildings were “dilapidated and improperly vented, with lead dust clouding the air.”
Hamilton’s expertise was enough to lure Harvard Medical School to hire her as its first female faculty member in 1919. “Until that time, Harvard didn’t take on women faculty, so when it did, it was a big scandal,” Swaby said. “She wasn’t allowed to use the faculty lounge or to walk in commencement. But she got a warm welcome otherwise.”
She helped pass a state law in Illinois to compensate workers who were exposed to harmful substances in the workplace.
Her work sparked revolutions in the way insurance companies, plants, and the state treated industrial workers.
A secret laboratory for a Nobel Prize winner
During World War II, an Italian science pioneer by the name of Rita Levi-Montalcini rode a bicycle door to door pleading with farmers for chicken eggs to “feed her babies.”
By “feeding her babies” she meant continuing her secret embryonic research.
The Italian government barred her from medical research on the grounds that she was Jewish, so Levi-Montalcini partnered with her brother to create a clandestine laboratory in her basement. The lab was outfitted with a homemade incubator and tiny instruments (think filed-down needles as scalpels) to work on chick embryos.
Her underground research led to the discovery that nerve cells grow and die like all other cells. Previously it was thought that nerve cells simply fail to multiply. After the war, Levi-Montalcini continued her work more publicly with partner Stanley Cohen.
The pair uncovered breakthroughs with nerve growth in degenerative disease progression, successful skin grafts, and protecting damaged spinal cords.
Their work earned them both the Nobel Prize in Physiology. Levi-Montalcini received the National Medal of Science and was appointed a senator-for-life in Italy.
The fact that these women aren’t famous outside their fields, Swaby said, is a lost opportunity that would encourage girls to pursue careers in science and technology.
“We could talk more about the history of women in science in our schools,” Swaby said. “It would be really great to have some of these stories told as girls are growing up and learning about science.”
Including the stories of these women in school curriculum would teach young students “that there’s a long history of women making amazing breakthroughs in the sciences and that there are places for them in every field of science.”