Prominent Women in Cancer Research and Medicine

By March 5, 2022January 10th, 2023No Comments
March is Women’s History Month, so what better time to recognize some of the many heroines in women’s health and women’s cancer prevention?

Cervical Cancer

One of the most important and recognized people in the field of cervical cancer is Mary Papanicolaou. Mary was the wife of Dr. George Papanicolaou, who invented the Pap smear or Pap test. During George’s ‘s research at Cornell University, he did not have access to human patients because he was not a clinician.

Fortunately, Mary volunteered as an experimental subject for her husband After her initial “screening,” it  was reported that Mary held gatherings for friends who also agreed to undergo  the new Pap smear procedure to provide more subjects for George’s  research.

Dr. Papanicolaou was able to determine that cancerous and precancerous cells were visible in his samples when one of Mary’s friends was later diagnosed with cervical cancer.

In 1928, Dr. Papanicolaou presented his findings at a medical conference to  promote his research  and further the development of the Pap smear test. Because of Mary Papanicolau’s willingness to be screened  daily along with her husband’s research, cervical cancer can be detected earlier, decreasing mortality rates.

Breast Cancer

Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was the daughter of Louis Wright, one of the first African Americans to graduate from Harvard Medical school.

After attending medical school herself and becoming Chief Resident at Harlem hospital, Dr. Wright joined her father at Harlem Hospital Research Center in 1949. In the mid 1900’s, using drugs to treat cancer was very experimental and chemotherapy was used only as a last resort.

Alongside her father, Dr. Wright focused her research on anti-cancer chemicals and their effectiveness on human leukemias and other cancers. This research led to her monumental work that established the efficacy of methotrexate in treating breast cancer. It also paved the way for treating tumors with chemotherapy.

Dr. Jane Wright was the only woman in the founding group of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), whose mission is, “conquering cancer through research, education, and promotion of the highest quality, equitable patient care.”  In 1971, she became the first woman to be elected president of the New York Cancer Society.

Cancer Treatment

In 1896, a French scientist named Henri Becquerel found that the element uranium gives off unusual rays of energy. He passed his findings onto Marie Curie, who would later become the first woman to receive a Doctor of Science (in Britain). She began to study the phenomenon and later named it radioactivity.

Marie and her husband, noted physicist Pierre Curie, announced they discovered two new elements: radium and polonium (named after Marie’s homeland of Poland). In 1903, Marie received her first Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery and research of radioactivity, the first woman to receive the honor.

After Marie’s husband died, she took over his professorship of the physics department at the Sorbonne, one of Europe’s top universities. It was during this time that she devoted her time and energy to completing the scientific work that she and Pierre had started. And in 1911, she received another Nobel Prize, (the first of only four people to win more than one) in chemistry, for the isolation of pure radium.

In 1932, the Radium Institute was founded, its main goal to utilize the healing properties of radium to protect health and save human lives. In Marie Curie’s time, the first cancers treated using radium were easily accessible surface and body cavity tumors. Eventually,  cancer of the cervix became the most frequently treated.

There have been countless women in health and medicine who have changed the trajectory of cancer treatment for the better. During Women’s History Month and throughout the year, we celebrate them for laying the foundation for other women in oncology and in the health sciences.

References: American Society of Clinical OncologyNational Cancer InstituteCervivorYale University,Science DirectAtomic Heritage Foundation

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