The last two months have seen heroism of unprecedented scale from the medical workers of the world, and among them a cavalcade of women nurses, doctors, emergency technicians, respiratory specialists, epidemiologists, viral researchers, and vaccine trial volunteers, each a critical component of our evolving defense against COVID-19.  Though we are just noticing them now, in our hour of need, women have for centuries been part of the fight against some of the greatest threats to human health.  Here are six disease fighters whose research played a pivotal role in leading humanity out of past epidemics.

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi – AIDS: When the first cases of AIDS were reported in Los Angeles in 1981, the rapid progress of the disease came as a shock to a world that was convinced medicine had advanced to the point that epidemics were a thing of the past.  Françoise Barré-Sinoussi set herself the task of discovering the cause of AIDS in January of 1983 and had, by May, identified a new retrovirus, HIV, as the culprit.  She has since spent a lifetime traveling the world to coordinate resources in the global fight against a disease that has grown from five known cases to seventy million over the course of four decades, and received the Nobel Prize in 2008 for her research. [Read our full Women In Science profile on Françoise Barré-Sinoussi…]

Isabel Morgan – Polio: In the midst of the polio epidemic that devastated early 20th century America, Isabel Morgan spent the years 1945 to 1949 at Johns Hopkins developing a killed virus vaccine, finally succeeding in 1949 in immunizing a monkey against directly injected polio.  Three years before Jonas Salk gained world adulation from developing his vaccine, Morgan had a system that worked, but was pulled away from her research by marriage before she could complete its development. [Read our full Women In Science profile on Isabel Morgan]

Tu Youyou – Malaria: During the 1960s, malaria broke out with renewed fury after a WHO campaign to eradicate the disease resulted instead in the development of a strain that was resistant to our only known anti-malarial medications.  In China, where the disease struck millions annually, a program was set into motion to find a cure, and at its center was Tu Youyou, who developed a program to systematically test two thousand possible cures, and was responsible for the technique that eventually allowed the production of artemisinin, which has saved untold millions of lives and which won her the Nobel Prize in 2015. [Read our full Women In Science profile on Tu Youyou…]

Florence Sabin – Tuberculosis: Florence Sabin did so much in her long career that it seems somehow small to just talk about her work with tuberculosis while employed as a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute, but it laid important foundations for determining the biochemistry of the disease, and the processes that determine its development.  Her research was in turn used by those who later developed workable anti-tuberculosis drug therapies. [Read our full Women In Science profile on Florence Sabin...]

Lady Mary Montagu – Smallpox: Smallpox was one of history’s great killers.  From its emergence in antiquity to its eradication in the 20th century, it claimed five hundred million lives, and at its height in the seventeenth century killed 400,000 Europeans every single year.  For centuries, there was nothing to be done except sit by and watch people die until Lady Mary Montagu, accompanying her diplomat husband to Turkey, noticed a local procedure by which people exhibiting a mild form of the disease were employed to infect healthy people with that same mild form, thereby inoculating them against the more deadly version of the disease.  Returning to England, she did everything in her power to popularize the treatment, including having the procedure performed on her own children.  For eighty years, this form of defense against smallpox protected those in England and America brave enough to try it, giving those nations a breathing space while awaiting the introduction by Edward Jenner of full vaccination techniques. [Read our full Women In Science profile on Lady Mary Montagu]

Jennifer Doudna – COVID-19 (work in progress): Some of the most exciting potential treatments for COVID-19 are emerging from researchers employing CRISPR technology, a tool developed by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier from 2009 to 2012 for accurately editing genetic material.  The ability to target a section of genetic code, introduce a cut, and splice in a substitutive code, has major implications for the eradication of genetic disease, and its ease-of-use and affordability will undoubtedly work revolutions in how we approach medicine, but in the meantime the ability of the technique to potentially target COVID-19 is being investigated by researchers, while Doudna herself has recently announced that she is converting her lab facilities for the purpose of emergency viral testing.  Whether CRISPR ends up being the tech that defeats COVID-19 or not, it has already shown promising results in the treatment of genetic diseases previously considered incurable. [Read our full Women In Science profile on Jennifer Doudna & Emmanuelle Charpentier…]

The past has seen women applying their genius to save humanity time and time again.  When brains and bravery were required, the women above, and so many more, answered the call and proved their mettle in the grimmest of circumstances.  And they continue to do so, dying that others might live, working themselves ragged and raw to compensate for lost time and insufficient resources that are not their fault, but the consequences of which are theirs to shoulder.

All of which is to say, when all of this is over, we need a big damn parade, one in each city, one without politicians or priests claiming post-facto credit for their party or deity, just medical workers and scientists going down their town’s central avenue while the rest of us cheer our voices hoarse from the windows and sidelines in thanks.  That’s a day to look forward to, and I hope we all make it through and see each other there.

Lead image credits (clockwise): Françoise Barré-Sinoussi – By Prolineserver – Own work, GNU Free Documentation License, GFDL 1.2; Isabel Merrick Morgan, via Wikimedia, By Source, Fair Use; Tu Youyou, Nobel Laureate in medicine in Stockholm December 2015, the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license; Florence Rena Sabin (1871-1953) – By Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain; Lady Mary Montagu, via Wikimedia, “This work is free and may be used by anyone for any purpose”; Jennifer Doudna – By Duncan.Hull – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Want to know more awesome Women in Science? Check out my WYSK column archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 1Volume 2 and Volume 3.