The 2017 book, The Radium Girls, describes the terrible illnesses the women who painted radium dials on clocks and watches for their employers suffered. The book describes how the women’s lawsuits against their employer eventually led to both federal and state legislation to protect employees in the workplace. One of the important figures mentioned in the book is Dr. Alice Hamilton. Dr. Hamilton, who is credited as the founder of the field of occupational medicine, received a Lasker Award in 1947. The Lasker Award recognizes the contributions of scientists, physicians, and public servants who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of human disease. This month, we are pleased to feature Lasker Award recipients Dr. Alice Hamilton, Dr. Florence Sabin, Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and Nancy Brinker. As well as the Lasker Award, all of these women have been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
The founder of the field of occupational medicine, Alice Hamilton became interested in the illnesses of workers and employment conditions of workplaces while she lived at Hull House in Chicago. After noting that Europeans were investigating workplace illnesses, but Americans were not, she published her first article on this topic in 1908. Her appointment to a Committee in Illinois to investigate occupational illnesses led her to look into a range of such issues for state and federal committees. The Illinois Committee’s work resulted in the first worker compensation laws in the U.S. in 1911 (Indiana followed in 1915).
Appointed the first female medical professor at Harvard Medical School, she continued her research on the effects of industrial metals and chemicals – including lead, radium, mercury carbon monoxide, and hydrogen sulfide – on the human body. Her 1947 Lasker Award citation was for “leadership in industrial toxicology.” Shortly after her death in 1970, the U.S. Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act to improve workplace safety.
The first woman to hold a full professorship at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the first woman elected to membership of the National Academy of Sciences, Florence Sabin was truly a trailblazing pioneer. During her medical career, she focused her research on the origin of blood, blood vessels, and blood cells. She also worked to understand the pathology and immunology of tuberculosis. Sabin was the first woman president of the American Association of Anatomists; she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences for her work on blood vessels. She would remain the sole woman member of the Academy for 20 years! After her retirement, Sabin returned to her native Colorado and began a second career. She assessed the health needs of the state and its citizens, established new health care programs, and was actively involved in a series of health care laws that when they were enacted were called the “Sabin Health Laws.” Her 1951 Lasker Award citation was for “leadership in public health administration.”
Cardiologist Helen Brooke Taussig founded the field of pediatric cardiology. Through her groundbreaking research she discovered that “blue babies” suffered from a leaking septum (the wall separating the heart chambers). With Alfred Blalock, she pioneered the surgical operation to repair the septum and cure a condition which had previously been described as hopeless. The Blalock-Taussig operation was first performed in 1944. In 1959, she became one of the first women to be awarded a full professorship at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, following in the footsteps of Florence Sabin. Taussig’s many honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her 1954 Lasker Award citation was for the “first successful ‘blue baby’ operation.”
Growing up with a sister who had intellectual disabilities, Eunice Kennedy Shriver decided to do something about the limited programs and options available at that time. Considered a pioneer in the fight for rights worldwide for individuals with intellectual disabilities, one of her most significant contributions was the founding of what is today known as ‘Special Olympics.’ Special Olympics grew out of a camp that she started in her backyard – “Camp Shriver.” By 1968 her efforts and those of people with whom she volunteered, led to the first International Special Olympic Games held in Chicago, Illinois. Shriver’s myriad of accomplishments includes the creation of President Kennedy’s Panel on Mental Retardation (1961), the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (1962) and “Community of Caring” programs throughout the U.S. Her many honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her 1966 Lasker Award citation was for “legislative leadership for intellectual disabilities.”
In 1980, Nancy Brinker promised her sister, Susan G. Komen, who was dying of breast cancer, that she would do everything she could to eradicate the disease, even if it took the rest of her life. What started as a shoebox operation with $200 is now the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure. Brinker has been tireless in raising billions of dollars for breast cancer research, education and services. When her sister died, breast cancer was rarely spoken about in public, little information was available, few women were routinely screened and few treatment options existed. Brinker pioneered a new form of fundraising: races. She also was responsible for institutionalizing pink (and the pink ribbon) as the now world-recognized symbol for breast cancer. Along the way, Brinker has served as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, Chief of Protocol in the White House, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her 2005 Lasker Award citation was for “public awareness of cancer.”
These amazing and accomplished women have worked in different ways to improve human health. They and many other women – almost all of them women we have not heard about and not learned about in school – across all fields of endeavor – more than 850 all together – are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories and write women back into history!
Copyright © 2017 Jill Tietjen and Charlotte Waisman all rights reserved
Charlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D., and Jill S. Tietjen, P.E., co-authors of Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (HarperCollins) and recipients of the Daughters of the American Revolution History Award Medal. Charlotte is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally. Jill is an author, speaker, and electrical engineer. She has been inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.