Ten Women Who Changed Science and the World tells the stories of trailblazing women who made a historic impact on physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, and medicine. Included in this volume are famous figures, such as two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, as well as individuals whose names will be new to many, though their breakthroughs were no less remarkable.
These women overcame significant obstacles, discrimination, and personal tragedies in their pursuit of scientific advancement. They persevered in their research, whether creating life-saving drugs or expanding our knowledge of the cosmos. By daring to ask ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’, each of these women made a positive impact on the world we live in today.
In this book, you will learn about:
Henrietta Leavitt (United States, 1868–1921) discovered the period-luminosity relationship for Cepheid variable stars, which enabled us to measure the size of our galaxy and the universe.
Lise Meitner (Austria, 1878–1968) fled Nazi Germany in 1938, taking with her the experimental results which showed that she and Otto Hahn had split the nucleus and discovered nuclear fission.
Chien-Shiung Wu (United States, 1912–1997) demonstrated that the widely accepted ‘law of parity’, which stated that left-spinning and right-spinning subatomic particles would behave identically, was wrong.
Marie Curie (France, 1867–1934) became the only person in history to have won Nobel prizes in two different fields of science.
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (United Kingdom, 1910–1994) won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 and pioneered the X-ray study of large molecules of biochemical importance.
Virginia Apgar (United States, 1909–1974) invented the Apgar score, used to quickly assess the health of newborn babies.
Gertrude Elion (United States, 1918–1999) won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1988 for her advances in drug development.
Rita Levi-Montalcini (Italy, 1909–2012) won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1986 for her co-discovery in 1954 of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF).
Elsie Widdowson (United Kingdom, 1906–2000) pioneered the science of nutrition and helped devise the World War II food-rationing program.
Rachel Carson (United States, 1907–1964) forged the environmental movement, most famously with her influential book Silent Spring.
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Virginia Apgar (1909–74)
Newborn babies the world over owe their lives to Virginia Apgar and her approach to life, summed up by one of her colleagues as, "Do what is right and do it now." Virginia was a trailblazer for modern women in medicine, qualifying in the United States in 1933, when only 5 percent of doctors were women. She helped to develop the new field of obstetric anesthetics and her interest in the health of newborn babies resulted in the Apgar test: five simple and quick assessments that can be life-saving and are now used worldwide. The Apgar test laid the foundation for the field of neonatology and Virginia went on to become a world leader in the prevention of birth defects, raising awareness and much-needed funds for research.
Alongside her groundbreaking medical work, Virginia found time for many hobbies, in particular music. She was an energetic, determined, and charismatic woman who was undeterred by the chauvinistic nature of medicine and the financial hardships of her early training. Proclaiming that "women are liberated from the time they leave the womb," Virginia was more than willing to share her joie de vivre and her achievements with others.
Virginia Apgar was born in Westfield, New Jersey on June 7, 1909. The family was delighted to welcome a girl into the family, following the birth of two older brothers, Charles and Lawrence. The Apgar household was a happy, productive, and enterprising one. Virginia once said that she came from a family that "never sat down," a trait that she inherited.
Her father, also named Charles, was a salesman for the New York Life Insurance Company but his real love was science and inventions. He provided an inquiring and creative environment for the young Virginia, sometimes with surprising consequences. Charles was a radio ham and during the First World War he helped to decode messages to German U-boats that were targeting Allied shipping in the Atlantic, and ships were saved.
Creativity was very evident, too, in the form of music, another of Charles's hobbies. The family often held amateur concerts in their living room and both Virginia and her brother Lawrence had music lessons from an early age; Virginia started on the violin at six years old and later the cello, while Lawrence learned the piano. When the children were old enough, they started performing in front-room concerts and at recitals in local concert halls. Lawrence eventually became a professor of music in Oxford, Ohio.
Virginia's childhood was not entirely free from tragedy. Her eldest brother, Charles Jr., died of tuberculosis just before his fourth birthday, a common occurrence in the 1900s when most of the population was infected and before the advent of antibiotics. Lawrence was two years older than Virginia and suffered from chronic eczema. Like many of her generation, her mother Helen's sole focus was her family, particularly as Lawrence's eczema required much time and effort to keep under control.
Her mother's preoccupation with Lawrence meant that Virginia and her father were able to develop their shared interest in science. It's not clear precisely when or why Virginia decided to become a doctor, but her elder brother's premature death, her father's scientific interests, and her mother's caring nature may all have been factors in her decision.
Virginia's drive to achieve academically was helped by her natural intelligence and her affinity for subjects like mathematics and Greek. At school, she loved debating and was a member of the high-school debating society for four years. With her tall and slim stature, Virginia was a natural athlete and enjoyed tennis and basketball as well. She continued to pursue her interest in music and was a keen member of the school orchestra. Virginia's prodigious energy and involvement in all aspects of school life is reflected in her high-school yearbook, where her entry ends with the question, "Frankly how does she do it?"
Getting a college degree, let alone in medicine, was not commonplace for girls when Virginia graduated from high school. Yet she was determined to pursue her interests in science and medicine and, in 1925, at the tender age of sixteen, Virginia enrolled at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. There she majored in zoology with chemistry and continued to have an active extracurricular life, too, playing the violin and cello in the campus orchestra and acting in several plays. She was affectionately known to her peers as "Jimmy," the girl who did it all. Writing home, unaware of the use of words that would highlight her future work, she reported to her parents, "I'm very well and happy but I haven't one minute even to breathe." In 1929, she graduated and set her sights on the next goal — a medical degree.
The timing was not good. In August 1929, the United States economy went into recession, swiftly followed by the stock market crash of October 1929. With the onset of the Great Depression, money was tight for many people and Virginia's family was no exception. Virginia took several odd jobs to support herself, including one in the laboratory of the zoology department at Mount Holyoke College. This proved to be an unorthodox occupation by today's standards as her main task was to catch stray cats for the lab, which were humanely killed and preserved for classwork dissections.
With the help of scholarships, the money she earned, and some she borrowed, Virginia started at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1929, at the age of twenty, one of three women in a group of sixty-nine. A fellow medical student, Vera Joseph, who also had to struggle with racial discrimination, remembered her well: "In her keen, perceptive way, she recognized my need for assurance she would pause for a cheerful greeting, a reassuring hug or a conversation."
Four years later, in 1933, Virginia graduated fourth in her class and took a surgical post at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital to complete the next stage of her medical training. She impressed her superiors with her skill and intellect but the head of the surgical department, Dr. Allen Whipple, dissuaded her from pursuing a career in surgery. He thought that the shortage of posts, particularly for women in the Great Depression, meant that she would struggle to establish herself. And there were the debts she had incurred in her training to consider — almost $4,000 — a vast sum, equivalent to over $70,000 today.
With these factors in mind, Whipple was supportive of Virginia's desire to pursue a medical career and suggested anesthetics as an alternative field. He admired her abilities and spotted the need for training in this new field. In the period 1920–48, no more than 5 percent of doctors in the United States were women but in anesthetics approximately 12 percent were. Other mentors may well have given female doctors advice similar to that of Whipple or perhaps the highpercentage was simply because historically anesthesia had been performed by female nurses.
Anesthetics was nothing like as advanced as it is today. Although a small number of doctors practiced as anesthetists in the UK in the 1930s, few were specialists in the United States and nurses had been fulfilling this role since the 1880s. Nowadays, "anesthetists" are nurses (though they are doctors in the UK) and doctors in this field are called "anesthesiologists." In the 1930s, nurses were often highly competent and technically skilled, but many American academic surgeons were concerned about the future of surgery. Surgical procedures were becoming increasingly complex, requiring the development of better anesthetics, and Whipple suggested that Virginia could make a significant contribution to that field.
In 1934, aged twenty-five, Virginia began her search for a training position, writing to the headquarters of the Associated Anesthetists of the United States and Canada. Their response revealed a problem: only thirteen training posts were available and only two of these were paid positions. After finishing her surgical post in 1935, Virginia reasoned that it would be better to stay put and learn the fundamentals of anesthetics from the nurses at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. In 1937, she spent six months with Dr. Ralph Waters in Madison, Wisconsin. He had set up the first academic anesthetic department in the United States in 1927 and was leading the way in anesthetic practices.
It was a period of intense learning for Virginia but not an easy one socially. The only woman in her class, she was accepted during the working day, but excluded from dinners and other social events in the evening. Medicine was very much a man's world, exemplified by the lack of housing for female doctors; in her six months in Madison she moved three times. Her housing problem continued when she returned to New York, this time to work with Dr. Emery Rovenstine at Bellevue Hospital. Here, she lodged temporarily in the maids' quarters of the clinic.
Undeterred, Virginia finished her anesthetics training at Bellevue in 1938 and returned to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. In 1939, aged thirty, she became the second female member of the American Society of Anesthetists and the fiftieth American doctor to be a board-certified anesthetist. Soon after, she was elected as its new leader and became the first woman to head the Division of Anesthesia at the hospital. She set up an organizational structure, establishing residences and incorporated new specialists, without displacing the nurses who had kept the field of anesthetics alive.
As Virginia's department grew over the next ten years, she expanded her knowledge of anesthetics, branching out into the new field of obstetric anesthetics. Her work was now focused on the arrival of new life, but death was also close at hand. In 1950, when she was forty-one, her beloved father died, aged eighty-five; although she mourned his loss, she was grateful that he had witnessed her success as a female doctor. By 1955, that success led to her appointment as the head of the obstetric anesthesia department at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
Her father's influence continued after his death. Virginia's interest in music stemmed from him and, as an adult, even though Virginia was very absorbed in her medical work, she played cello and viola regularly in the Teaneck Symphony of New York and the Amateur Music Players. Her cello and/or viola even accompanied her on her travels, so she could practice and play with local chamber music groups when her busy schedule allowed it.
Not content with just playing her instruments, in 1956 Virginia embarked on another musical odyssey — making her own instruments. She was inspired to do so after meeting a patient, Carleen Hutchings, a fellow music enthusiast who started teaching Virginia all she knew about constructing musical instruments. It wasn't easy finding the time and it wasn't always a quiet occupation either. Virginia's neighbors were kept awake into the early hours as she hammered away in her bedroom, now filled with woodworking tools and her workbench. Virginia's dedication to her new craft resulted in a violin, a mezzo violin, a cello, and a viola.
Virginia had a dedicated approach to all her activities, whether it was pursuing her medical career and her focus on the care of newborn babies or in her hobbies. Keeping active was important to Virginia. At school she had played team sports like basketball and later in life she developed a love of golf, angling, and gardening. She also enjoyed watching baseball and was a committed fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Virginia's lifelong love of learning, whether it was making musical instruments, learning a new sport, or pursing her interests in science and medicine, was often commented on. One of her mentors and good friend, Dr. L. Stanley James, described her as "a student until the day she died. Learning was the focal point of her life. Her curiosity was insatiable and new knowledge held a continuing fascination for her. She was always ready to accept new information and to modify or change her ideas accordingly. She never became rigid. This rare quality enabled her to progress through life without becoming walled in by tradition or custom."
Her dedication and problem-solving approach to her instrument-making matched her approach to her medical work. Ingenuity was never far from the surface in Virginia's life and the newborn screening test that carries her name, the Apgar test, was equally ingenious in its simplicity and effectiveness.
As Virginia developed her interest and skill in anesthetics between 1939 and 1949, she was drawn to its applications in obstetric medicine. According to Dr. Selma Calmes, a leading anesthetist, Virginia entered this field "in the right time and the right place." It was not common in the 1940s to be anesthetized when giving birth, but Virginia's new job involved her in the process of Caesarean delivery. This did require anesthetic, the application of which was not well understood — in its effect on either the mother or the baby — and resulted in unacceptably high maternal mortality during or just after birth.
Virginia's flexibility and openness to new developments — which extended to her own ability to admit mistakes when they occurred — were instrumental in moving the discipline of anesthetics forward. New anesthetics were being developed and Virginia made numerous careful observations of how they affected both the mother and the newborn baby. Between 1949 and 1952, she gathered data on the early moments of a newborn's life, health, and prognoses.
Virginia's powers of clinical observation and her ability to make important changes in obstetric anesthetics, and disseminate that knowledge, did not go unnoticed. One of her colleagues, Dr. Stanley James, later said, "Virginia was not just a doctor. She was also an educator." As obstetric anesthetics was such a new field, there was not much published material but Virginia was pragmatic by nature and improvised with what teaching aids were available: she used old bones, or even her own pelvic bone which had an unusual shape, shocking one Australian doctor who had heard about Dr. Apgar's pelvis and presumed it belonged to the old and much used skeleton.
The feature of delivery rooms that struck Virginia so forcibly in the late 1940s and early 1950s was the care of babies just after they were born. The focus was more on the mother's well-being than the baby's. Hospital deliveries were replacing home births, which meant that more mothers and babies were surviving the birth process, but the first twenty-four hours of a baby's life were still an uncertain time.
There was no routine examination of the newborns' vital signs and, if there was, the methods varied from hospital to hospital and were often unscientific, and even unsafe. Doctors were missing signs that a baby was, for example, starved of oxygen, a factor in half of newborn deaths. Some doctors assumed that babies that were underweight or struggling to breathe should be left to die. "It was considered better not to be aggressive. You dried them, you shook them and some doctors patted them on the backside and that was it," said Professor Alan Fleischman, professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
There was a dire need for a system that checked vital signs, such as heartbeat and breathing rate, from the minute a baby was born. That way, the appropriate special care could be put into place before it was too late.
Virginia's eureka moment occurred one morning while she was having breakfast in the hospital canteen. One of her medical students asked her how to evaluate newborn babies' well-being. Virginia replied, "That's easy. You would do it like this," and jotted down the five vital signs to look for. Initially called the Newborn Screening System, it was the first version of what became the Apgar test.
The medical student may have been surprised by the seemingly instantaneous production of a new scoring system, but Virginia's thoughts were the result of her many years of painstaking observations and clinical knowledge. As a practicing anesthetist, Virginia's daily work involved close contact with newborns. She had seen seemingly healthy babies being whisked away from their mothers to be weighed and measured, only to turn blue and struggle to breathe.
Virginia understood the importance of checking the five vital signs at one minute after birth. Each of these is given a score of zero, one, or two. A total score of seven to ten is considered normal, while four to six necessitates some intervention to stimulate, for example breathing, and a score below three leads to emergency treatment. Few babies get a perfect ten one minute after birth, as the circulation — oxygenated blood — often hasn't reached the fingers and toes fully, so these can still be blue.
As the Apgar score became more widely used, it was clear that having a second set of measurements would reveal how the baby was thriving after being born. Comparisons between scores taken at different times would enable the healthcare professionals to monitor improvement or deterioration. Now, the Apgar test is routinely performed at one and five minutes after birth. If necessary, it can be repeated at ten minutes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "10 Women Who Changed Science and the World"
Copyright © 2019 Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans.
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Table of Contents
1 VIRGINIA APGAR,
2 RACHEL CARSON,
3 MARIE CURIE,
4 GERTRUDE ELION,
5 DOROTHY HODGKIN,
6 HENRIETTA LEAVITT,
7 RITA LEVI-MONTALCINI,
8 LISE MEITNER,
9 ELSIE WIDDOWSON,
10 CHIEN-SHIUNG WU,
About the Authors,