Women in STEM: Unsung Heroes of Vaccinology

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought STEM out of the lab and into the wider public domain in a way that is relevant to us all. At the start of the pandemic in early 2020, engineers were in a race against the clock to build more mechanical ventilators; mathematical modelling was used to predict how the number of cases could grow; smartphone apps were developed to track the progress of the virus; we clapped for our healthcare professionals; and more recently we have had positive news on the rapid development of a new vaccine. As part of the Ada Lovelace Day celebrations I have explored the history of vaccinology and the pioneering women who have contributed to the development of this critical field of medical research.

Edward Jenner is largely credited as the founder of vaccines thanks to his pioneering work on the development of a smallpox vaccine in the late 1790’s. Louis Pasteur, the father of germ theory, is later credited with the development of vaccines for chicken cholera and anthrax in the 1880’s. However, the history of vaccinology is a little more gender inclusive than the history books would have us believe and many women have contributed to developments in this crucial field of science.

In 1718, a little over 70 years prior to Jenner’s experiments on James Phipps, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced the method of smallpox inoculation, the precursor to vaccination, into Europe. In 1894, Dr Anna Wessels Williams isolated the strain of diptheria that was used in the development of both diptheria antitoxin and the diptheria vaccine.

Thanks to the work of Dr Wessels, diptheria can be prevented and the vaccine is included in the childhood DTP vaccine programme. Fast forward fifty years to the developments made by Drs Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering who developed the first whooping cough vaccine. Dr Margaret Pittman also contributed to the whooping cough work, whilst also contributing to the development of vaccines against typhoid and cholera.

In the 1970s, Dr Ruth Bishop and her team discovered the rotavirus, a major cause of severe diarrhoea, primarily in children. Thanks to this discovery, in the thirty years that followed, various rotavirus vaccines were developed. In more recent years, the work of Dr Anne Szarewski, which showed that infection with HPV was linked to development of cervical cancer, led to the development of the HPV vaccine. Finally, fast forward to the year 2020 and Professor Sarah Gilbert of the University of Oxford is leading the charge in the development of a vaccine against Covid-19.

It is clear that throughout medical history, perhaps due to the socioeconomic factors of the time, pioneering women have often gone uncredited for their life saving inventions and discoveries. A study published in 2019 found that women accounted for only 2% of the total number of inventors named on patent applications filed prior to 1965. Promisingly, the report found that the number has doubled in recent years, with 12.7% of all inventors being women. Despite this promising increase, there is still a long way to go until female inventors account for 50% of all inventors on patent applications. In a world where science and innovation are at the forefront of our battle against Covid-19 hopefully more women will feel inspired to pursue careers in STEM.

Article by: Meg Murphy | 19 January 2021

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