Healthcare Heroines

As the world confronts the coronavirus, we wanted to tell you the stories of women who helped fight earlier health scourges.  These healthcare heroines include Alice Evans, Gladys Dick, Louise Pearce, and Florence Seibert.

In 2020 it is hard to think about a time when milk was not always good to drink.  And very few of us think about the process of pasteurization, which was developed by a woman!  Our milk is pasteurized today due to the groundbreaking work of bacteriologist Alice Catherine Evans.  She discovered that the brucellae bacteria was the cause of undulant fever in humans; this was contracted from farm animals and their milk.  Evans studied bacteriology at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin.  At UW she accepted a research position in the University’s Dairy Division, instead of pursuing her Ph.D.  By 1917, Evans had discovered that bacteria from raw cow’s milk were responsible for undulant fever.  Undulant fever has symptoms including fever, sweats, fatigue, headaches, back pain and muscle pain.  It was called undulant because the fever rose and fell in waves.

When Evans presented her results to the Society of American Bacteriologists, she was met with skepticism; this was probably due in large part to her gender.  After 1918 when she joined the U.S. Public Health Service, she was unable to continue her milk studies but studies around the world confirmed her findings.  She advocated for pasteurization for years; that occurred in the 1930s.  In 1928, Evans was elected the first female president of the American Society of Bacteriologists.  She has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

In earlier times, scarlet fever was a feared disease; it killed 25% of the children who got it, and of those how lived, many had severe and crippling complications.  Gladys Dick and her husband successfully isolated the bacteria that caused the disease.  They also developed a test to determine who was vulnerable to the disease and devised ways to prevent the disease.  Dick and her husband patented the way their scarlet fever toxin and antitoxin were prepared, in order to preserve its purity.

Dick wanted to study medicine but had to overcome the objections of her mother, who thought such learning was not appropriate for young women.  After graduating in 1900 from the University of Nebraska, Dick taught biology at a high school until her mother relented and Dick was able to go back to school.  She graduated from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1907.  After postgraduate work in Berlin, she moved to Chicago to pursue medical research.  In Chicago, she met her husband.

In 1923, the Dicks published papers proving that scarlet fever was caused by the hemolytic streptococcus.  They announced the Dick test in 1924. It showed whether a person was susceptible or immune to scarlet fever.  Their toxin and antitoxin were ‘state-of-the-art’ until antibiotics were discovered during World War II.  Later, Dick would work investigating polio.  She also maintained a lifelong interest in children and their welfare and founded what is arguably the first professional adoption organization in the US, the Cradle Society, in Evanston, Illinois.

A cure for African sleeping sickness, carried by the tsetse fly, was discovered by physician Louise Pearce.  After attending Stanford University, Pearce graduated from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.  She then pursued a career in medical research.  In 1919, she and her research partner announced that they had found a new compound that was effective in laboratory animals against the disease commonly called “sleeping sickness.” African sleeping sickness was a plague that had spread throughout that continent.  In 1919, Pearce went to the Belgian Congo and administered the compound she had created to 77 patients who were in all stages of the disease.  Most of the patients were completely cured.  Pearce was awarded the Belgian Order of the Crown, the King Leopold II Prize and the Royal Order of the Lion for her accomplishment.

After returning to the U.S., Pearce worked on the biology of syphilis, as well as other infectious diseases and congenital deformities.  She devoted much of her life to documenting many findings including discoveries about achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism and osteopetrosis, a bone disease that causes usually dense bones to be prone to fractures. Pearce was an ardent suffragist.  She also served as the President of the Medical College of Pennsylvania from 1946 until 1951.  In addition, she was the recipient of many honorary degrees.

Biochemist Florence Seibert had contracted polio as a child; this caused her to limp for the rest of her life.  As she read biographies of scientists as a teenager, her interest was sparked in pursuing a scientific career.  She did pursue a scientific education and received her undergraduate degree from Goucher College and, in 1923, her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Yale University.

Seibert identified the impurities introduced into intravenous injections and developed a new spray-catching trap to prevent contamination during the distillation process.  This process was subsequently adopted by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical firms.  She is best known for her work in identifying a pure form of tuberculin with her first paper published on the topic in 1934.  Her work enabled the development and use of a reliable tuberculosis skin test that became the national and international standard for tuberculin tests in the 1940s.  The recipient of many awards for her groundbreaking work, Seibert has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives.  These healthcare heroines, as well as many others, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, are profiled in our book, Her Story:  A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America.  Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories.  Write women back into history! Tell young women especially, that their dreams in any field of endeavor or interest, can become a reality.

Jill Tietjen
Author: Jill Tietjen

Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.

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