Women In History – Rachel Carson & Gertrude B. Elion

For the second half of March, which is Womens History Month, we are highlighting some famous women from history that you may not have heard of. Many of these women have amazing and important accomplishments, yet are almost completely unknown. Look up more information on them, share information about them with your friends, and talk about their accomplishments when an opportunity strikes!

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Rachel Carson – The Environmental Movement


Biography & Accomplishments


Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907 in Pennsylvania. She graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women with a BA in biology and went on to earn an MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. In 1936, after outscoring all other applicants on the civil service exam, Carson became only the second woman to ever be hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries where she worked as an aquatic biologist. During that time, she was promoted to Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


In 1951 she published “The Sea Around Us,” which is essentially a history of the ocean. She won a U.S. National Book Award for the publication. She then wrote two additional books about the ocean, “The Edge of the Sea,” which focused on the ecosystem on the east coast, from Maine to Florida, and “Under the Sea Wind,” which followed the interactions between a sea bird, a fish, and an eel. They were both bestsellers.


During the 1950s, Carson also began looking into conservation, particularly problems caused by synthetic pesticides. She then wrote another book, “Silent Spring,” which was published in 1962 and asked difficult questions, such as whether and why humans have the right to control nature, which includes non-human life. The publication of this book brought environmental concerns to the American people. This led to a reversal in national pesticide policy, including a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides.


Chemical companies sought to discredit Carson, as her ideas hurt their businesses. On April 3, 1963, CBS Reports ran a television special, “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.” Many of the chemical companies pulled their ads from the CBS special in protest. However, it still received approximately 15 million viewers. Her research was validated by a report from John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee Report, which stated that pesticides were a major public health issue.


It also inspired a grassroots environmental movement, which led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For her contributions to environmental conservation, Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Long-Lasting Effects on Society


Carson is largely responsible for the beginning of the environmental conservation movement. The Environmental Defense Fund was created in 1967, the first major milestone in the fight to ban DDT. Carson has also become known as one of the finest nature writers of the twentieth century. Today her homes are considered national public landmarks.


Image Credit: Wikipedia

Gertrude B. Elion – Contribution to HIV/AIDS Drugs


Biography & Accomplishments


Gertrude B. Elion was born on January 23, 1918 in New York City. Elion decided to dedicate herself to trying to cure cancer after the death of her grandfather from the disease. She graduated from Hunter College with a BA in chemistry and then earned an M.S. in chemistry from New York University.


When World War II began, there was an urgent need for women in scientific laboratories, so Elion was able to get a job with George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company, today known as GlaxoSmithKline. She worked with Hitchings and Sir James Black to develop a multitude of new drugs, using research methods that would lead to the development of many of the drugs we use today. Among the drugs Elion helped to develop are the first immunosuppressive drug, azathioprine, which is used for organ transplants, as well as acyclovir, for the treatment of herpes, purinethol, for the treatment of leukemia, pyrimethamine, for the treatment of malaria, and trimethoprim, for the treatment of meningitis and bacterial infections.


In 1967, Elion was the head of the Department of Experimental Therapy. After she retired in 1988, she continued working at the lab and oversaw the development of azidothymidine, known as AZT, the first drug used to treat AIDS.


In 1988, Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which she shared with Hitchings and Black. In 1991, Elion became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.


Elion held 45 patents and 23 honorary degrees when she died in 1999.


Long-Lasting Effects on Society


Today there are drugs to treat HIV and extend the lives of those infected, people who would have died within a couple of years at most only a few decades ago. There are also treatments for herpes, and drugs that allow people to get kidney transplants. Without them, transplants could be rejected from the body of the recipient. Due to her work on the treatment of leukemia, childhood leukemia went from a fatal disease to something most children survive. Her work on azathioprine led to treatments for rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis, two very common conditions. Other ailments that can be treated as a direct result of Elion’s work include: urinary tract infections, gout, kidney stones, and shingles. Many of the drugs we use today are a direct result of the work of Elion and her partners.


“Don’t be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Don’t let others discourage you or tell you that you can’t do it. In my day I was told women didn’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t.” – Gertrude B. Elion


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