Celebrating women in the sciences for International Women’s Day

Throughout human history, science has progressed via a continuous process of trial and error, and some of the greatest breakthroughs have resulted from some amount of luck (something we have written about before), near-misses, and plenty of perseverance. Many people have gone to great and often dangerous lengths in pursuit of medical knowledge. Today, figures such as Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin are widely recognized for their contribution to the advancement of science and medicine. However, they are not alone as women in the sciences.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we would like to bring to the fore some lesser known female innovators in fields as diverse as haematology, philanthropy and translation. How many have you heard of?

Lucy WillsThe haematologist – Lucy Wills

Lucy Wills was a pioneering English haematologist credited with the discovery of folate. After studying geology and botany at Cambridge, which at the time did not award full degrees to women, Wills enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1915. Following her studies, she developed an interest in haematology and particularly anaemia, possibly emboldened by George Minot’s research into pernicious anaemia. In 1928 Wills received a grant to travel to Bombay to research a link between macrocytic anaemia and pregnancy. Through experiments and clinical trials, Wills discovered that she could not only reverse, but also cure pernicious anaemia with Marmite. This was due to a pivotal chemical nutrient she named ‘the Wills factor’. Scientists later discovered this chemical was folate, the naturally occurring form of folic acid, which is crucial for cell division and blood production. After retirement, she continued to focus on health and nutrition in South Africa and Fiji.

The philanthropist – Mary LaskerMary Lasker

Mary Lasker (née Woodward) was an American socialite, philanthropist and health activist who successfully raised funds and public awareness for medical research, particularly around cancer. Lasker established herself as an influential businesswoman during the Great Depression by founding a successful clothing company for professional women. In 1939 she met her husband Albert Lasker, himself an innovator in the field of advertising. The two began a powerful campaign against cancer by using advertising tactics to rally support and raise funds. They set up the Lasker Foundation to promote medical research, and overhauled the American Society for the Control of Cancer, raising over $12 million in donations. Lasker’s efforts intensified after losing her husband to colon cancer. She founded the National Health Education Committee, helped expand the National Institutes of Health, and partnered with Sidney Farber, the pioneer of modern chemotherapy, to further research and gather funds for his innovations. Lasker was tireless in her efforts, and continued working until her death in 1994.

Gertrude ElionThe pharmacologist – Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Elion is an American chemist and pharmacologist who discovered Purinethol, a crucial drug for the treatment of leukaemia. Having lost her grandfather to cancer, Elion pursued a career in medicine in the hopes of finding a cure. Following a graduate programme at New York University, she worked as an analytical chemist for a food company during World War II. She later moved into a research position with Burroughs Wellcome (which later became GlaxoSmithKline). Here she expanded her knowledge in biochemistry, immunology, pharmacology, and virology. In collaboration with biochemist George Hitchens, Elion began comparing pathogens with normal human cells to develop drugs that would kill the former without harming the latter. She developed drugs including 6-mercaptopurine (used to treat leukaemia, crohns disease and ulcerative colitis), azathioprine (an immunosuppressant), pyrimethamine (originally used as a cure for malaria), and acyclovir (for viral herpes), amongst many others. For her outstanding achievements, Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988.

The virologist – Francoise Barré-SinoussiFrancoise Barre-Sinoussi

Francoise Barré-Sinoussi is a French scientist who first identified HIV as the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Unsure whether she wanted to pursue a scientific career, she joined the Pasteur institute in the early 1970s on a part-time basis, but soon became full time. During this period, Barré-Sinoussi developed an interest in retroviruses in time for the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Her discovery in 1983 that HIV causes AIDS had profound ramifications on public understanding and perception of the disease. Barré-Sinoussi continued her research into retroviruses, and made important contributions to understanding adaptive immunity, viral infections, and mother-to-child HIV transmission. In 2008, in collaboration with Luc Montaigner, she discovered that HIV attacks lymphocytes, which are vital for the body’s immune system, a breakthrough for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The linguist – Dora Wirth

Dora WirthOf course, we are also celebrating the achievements of Dora Wirth, founder of Dora Wirth Languages Limited. She was a remarkable linguist and businesswoman. A Russian native, Dora and her family emigrated to Warsaw after the Counter Revolution of 1919, before settling in Danzig until the late thirties. In 1935 she moved to England having already become proficient in Russian, French, German, Polish and English. Her multilingualism earned her a job at the Daily Express under Lord Beaverbrook, a minister in Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet. Dora’s efforts intensified during the war, and she helped gauge the political mood by monitoring speeches by Hitler and Stalin. After the war, and following her husband’s death in 1961, she established her own translation agency called Eurolink Limited. In 1964 the agency then became Dora Wirth Languages Limited as we know it today. Dora was an innovator in many respects, harnessing her linguistic skills to build a successful translation business, and fostering enduring professional relationships with translators, clients and her own staff. This is a tradition we celebrate and carry on today.

This list is by no means comprehensive, and medicine has benefited from the contributions of numerous women working tirelessly to advance scientific knowledge. However, since International Women’s Day is a celebration of all women from all walks of life, we asked our colleagues here at DWL about women they admire. This is what they said:


“Audrey Hepburn was the epitome of glamour and grace, but more than that, she used her fame for the good of others, becoming an ambassador for UNICEF and visiting places of suffering to raise awareness and bring relief. She could have sat back and enjoyed her fame, but instead she fought to make other people’s lives better.”


“Rosalind Franklin (1920- 1958), a molecular biologist who made a crucial contribution to the discovery of the DNA structure. I admire her tenacity to follow her purpose as a scientist in those years when women were not welcome in science at all. As an illustration, she became a scientist against her family’s will. Also, when she was working at King’s College she had to leave the building at lunch every day because women were not allowed to use the college café.”


“Maria Sibylla Merian, a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator, and one of the first scientists to study insects. I love the fact that she and her daughter travelled to South America to observe and record tropical insects!”


“Jessica Ennis-Hill – the star of the London Olympics 2012! I admire her success story as a world-class athlete and champion with humble beginnings.”


“Franca Viola is the first Italian woman who refused a ‘rehabilitating marriage’ with her victimiser after suffering kidnapping and rape in 1960s’ Sicily, and successfully appealed to the law to prosecute the rapist. Her behaviour clashed with the traditional social conventions in Southern Italy and the Italian Code of Criminal Procedure of the time, which equated rape to a crime against "public morality" rather than a personal offence, and formalized the idea of a "rehabilitating marriage", stating that a rapist who married his victim would have his crime automatically extinguished.”


“Among many famous women, I admire Jo Pavey MBE. I am inspired by her work ethic, as a successful track athlete who has also raised a family. In 2014, 10 months after giving birth to her second child, Pavey won Gold in the 10’000 metres at the European Championships to became the oldest female to win a gold medal in the history of the competition – the finish is worth a watch!”


As a Francophile, I have always admired Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). Although she is often mentioned in the same breath as Jean-Paul Sartre, de Beauvoir is, in my opinion, the more fascinating of the two. She was one of the leading intellectuals and existentialists in post-war France and wrote several novels and essays, but is undoubtedly best known for her seminal feminist work The Second Sex, published in 1949. Her autobiography spanning several volumes reveals an independent-minded, spirited person who was not afraid to break convention at a time of rigid codes of behaviour, especially for women, and it is this that I admire in her.


“A woman I really admire is Chief (Mrs) Nike Davies-Okundaye, an award-winning textile designer and artist. She was brought up in Nigeria amidst the traditional techniques of cloth-weaving, adire-making and indigo-dyeing but, finding that the traditional methods that had always been her source of inspiration were dying out, she decided to build four art centres offering free courses for young disadvantaged women, with the aim of teaching them about traditional arts and crafts and helping them to understand the business of art and how to manage their resources. Despite her humble beginnings, four decades later she is widely acknowledged as having trained and helped thousands of women and has had her work displayed at major international exhibitions, allowing the rest of the world to learn more about her culture through her art. Having met her personally, I can confirm she is one of the humblest and kindest people I have ever met. Today, she is the owner of the largest art gallery in West Africa and continues to be an inspiration to many.”


“Emilia Clarke is an English Actress born in London, but raised in Berkshire. Most people would know her from Game of Thrones or Me Before You (an adaption of the bestselling book written by Jojo Moyes). I admire Emilia not only for being an excellent actress, having a jolly and uplifting character, but also because she partakes in events to help fight for gender equality – a subject that never seems to lose its trend."