The Women Pillars of Contemporary Prevention

Apr 4, 2023

As we transition from Women’s History Month (March) to National Public Health Week, the first week of April, it seems natural to turn our attention to the courageous and tenacious women who have shaped public health and prevention strategies over the years. Many of the female leaders in public health were discouraged and often banned from entering the predominantly “man’s world of medicine.”

Women have always been central to the history of health and medicine. They have been nurses, midwives, activists, and public health experts. Women have worked to heal patients, study diseases, and improve access to health care. Today, women comprise more than one-third of the active physician workforce. The number of women applicants and enrollees in U.S. medical schools continued to increase in the 2022-23 academic year.

Women Public Health Pioneers

Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)
Florence Nightingale is best known for tending to wounded soldiers during the Crimean Wars, which is clearly focused on individual health. However, her insistence on improving the sanitary conditions at the military hospital decreased the mortality rate from 40% to 2%. Her efforts also led to standards and safe nursing practices still followed today.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831 - 1895)
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman to become a doctor. She was quite interested in maternal and child health. She published A Book of Medical Discourses from the notes she kept over the course of her medical career. Dedicated to nurses and mothers, it focused on the medical care of women and children. Her main desire in presenting this book was to emphasize the “possibilities of prevention.” Her house is on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952)
Maria Montessori was the first woman to earn a medical degree in Italy. Through Montessori’s pioneering theories in early childhood education and the schools she founded, the name Montessori is known around the world.
As she treated poor and working-class children who attended free clinics in Rome, she observed that fundamental intelligence was present in children of all socio-economic backgrounds. Such a notion defied the country’s conservative educational expectations. As director of the Orthophrenic School for developmentally disabled children, Maria continued her research. This led her to developing her own method of applying educational theories. Montessori schools are still common today. They are especially effective for children with alternative learning and behavioral styles, which lead them to success they likely would not achieve in a traditional school environment.
Gerty Cori (1896 – 1957)
Gerty Cori the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, worked with her husband and fellow researcher to find out how the human body processed sugar. Their research included insulin production, blood glucose concentration and hormones. Their work paved the way for life-changing practices and medication for those living with diabetes and other diseases that affect how the body uses blood sugar.
Mrs. Marty Mann (1904 – 1980)
Mrs. Marty Mann was one of the first women of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and founder of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. While she was actively drinking, she became committed to teaching others the facts about alcoholism. Her efforts included fighting stigma, something we continue to facetoday. Mann’s radical for 1944 core messages were:

  1. Alcoholism is a disease, and the alcoholic is a sick person;
  2. The alcoholic can be helped, and is worth helping;
  3. Alcoholism is a public health problem, and therefore a public responsibility.

Marty Mann achieved sobriety through her commitment to helping others. She is considered to be the first woman with longtime sobriety in AA. She opened the door for millions of other women to find sobriety and continues to prevent immeasurable illnesses and deaths associated with substance use.

Dr. Virginia Apgar (1909 - 1974)
Dr. Virginia Apgar is a surgeon and anesthesiologist best known for her work in neo-natal care. She developed the assessment tool known as the Apgar Scores still used today to assess a newborn’s health. The Apgar method reduced infant mortality and laid the foundations of neonatology. No doubt Dr. Apgar’s contribution has saved the lives of countless newborns.
Frances Kelsey (1914 - 2015)
Frances Kelsey was employed by the FDA and within her first month on the job proved to be a rebel. She took a strong stand against insufficient testing and external pressures from businesses by refusing to approve the release of thalidomide in the United States. This decision proved to be spot on when it became known that the drug caused serious birth defects.

Kelsey helped shape and enforce necessary amendments to drug regulation law around safety and effectiveness, informed consent from patients during clinical trials, and reporting of adverse effects. These measures are still protecting people today.

Dr. Antonio Novello (1944 – present)
Dr. Antonio Novello was the first woman and the first Hispanic to serve as surgeon general of the U.S. She impacted public health through her initiative to end tobacco advertising that targets children. She was among the first to recognize the need to focus on women with AIDS and on neonatal transmission of HIV. Her work in healthcare has contributed to enhanced ethical practices and standards. Dr. Novello tirelessly worked to improve health conditions and access to medical care, especially for women, children, and minority populations.
Dr. Virginia M. Alexander (1900 – 1949)
Dr. Virginia M. Alexander was a pioneering Black doctor and public health expert. She treated Black patients and studied racism in the healthcare system. Through her work, Dr. Alexander showed how segregation and racism harmed Black Americans’ health. In 1935, Dr. Alexander conducted a study on race and public health in North Philadelphia. She found shocking disparities in health outcomes among black and white residents. Dr. Alexander’s work provided the first data to inform the ongoing healthcare disparities research being conducted today. Sadly this issue persists in current society.
Joycelyn Elders (1933 – present)
Joycelyn Elders was appointed to head the Arkansas Department of Health where she advocated for clinics and expanded sex education. Two years later, the Arkansas legislature passed laws that included sex education, substance abuse prevention and programs to promote self-esteem. These classes are all standard in school districts across the country today with updated curricula and knowledge. Elders was the first African American woman to serve as the U.S. Surgeon General.

Contemporary Female Pioneers’ Contributions to Prevention

women looking in microscopeAfter years of working behind the scenes, women have made a visible mark in immunization and microbiology since the advent of COVID-19. But not without facing serious obstacles, such as gender discrimination and harassment in their respective workplaces. For many of them this caused self-doubt and undermined self-confidence. Thankfully, they all persevered. Their contributions improved the health and wellness of thousands of people exposed to life threatening illness and disease.


Sarah Gilbert
Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute, Oxford University, UK, together with colleagues, designed the platform that supports the AstraZeneca–Oxford ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine. This followed 20 years of previous research and testing.
Katalin Karikó
Professor Katalin Karikó developed mRNA therapeutics to fight disease, which is the basis of the development of the Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. Her theories had been previously dismissed by male colleagues as too radical. She had 15 years of rejected grant applications for research on therapeutic applications of mRNA, an area she first started investigating in her homeland, Hungary. Without her tenacity, many of us would not be vaccinated today.
Kizzmekia Corbett
Kizzmekia Corbett led research into the development of new vaccines for coronaviruses at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Vaccine Research Center. She helped recognize that the best vaccine target for such viruses was its spike protein. This research laid an important blueprint for the Moderna–NIH mRNA-1273 vaccine that she helped to develop. She had a major role in designing the vaccine and led the preclinical trials.
Sharon Peacock
Sharon Peacock, Professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, in March, 2020, spearheaded setting up the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) with colleagues to rapidly sequence as many SARS-CoV-2 viral genomes as possible to map out the spread and evolution of the virus.
We salute these incredible pioneers and believe in the hope and promise of future leaders of prevention in public health.

Every prevention professional can help develop our pioneers of tomorrow by becoming a mentor.  We challenge you to seek out someone to mentor. You can learn more about the importance of mentoring in our previous blog ‘Mentors Listen, Encourage, and Guide While Youth Learn To Trust’ and at our mentorship webpage.


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