The Faces of Women’s Health: Women’s Health Trailblazers

Women's Health Blog
4 min readMar 23, 2024

Authors: Shayda Swann & Romina Garcia de leon

Published: March 22, 2024

In honour of Women’s History Month, this blog will focus on prominent women who shaped the future of women’s health. We are honoured to benefit from the impacts of these remarkable women!

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte

Dr. Picotte, born in 1865 as a member of the Omaha tribe in Nebraska, USA, was the first Indigenous woman to receive a medical degree. As someone deeply committed to the health of her community, she was inspired to pursue medicine after witnessing the death of an Indigenous women who was refused care by a white physician. Dr. Picotte applied to attend the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1886, which at the time was one of the only medical schools to train women. Following her graduation in 1889, where she was honoured as valedictorian of her class, Dr. Picotte returned to her home community to provide medical care to members of the Omaha reserve. In addition to her medical practice, Dr. Picotte was a strong advocate for public health and preventative medicine, focusing specifically on reducing alcoholism, improving hygiene and food sanitation, and combating tuberculosis.

Professor Tu Youyou

Professor Tu was born in 1930 and trained in pharmaceutical chemistry at the Beijing Medical College. During the Vietnam War, the Chinese government tasked Professor Tu with searching for a treatment for malaria, which was killing thousands of soldiers. With her background in both Chinese and Western medicine, Professor Tu travelled around China to gather teachings from Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners. Her findings were collected in a journal called A Collection of Single Practical Prescriptions for Anti-Malaria, which summarized 640 prescriptions. Based on these, she evaluated 2,000 recipes and eventually discovered the anti-malaria properties of a compound called artemisinin or qinghaosu, extracted from sweet wormwood plant. As the first person to isolate this compound, she insisted that the first human clinical trial was done on herself. Fortunately, the treatment proved to be both safe and effective, leading to her publishing her findings in 1977 after nearly a decade of work. To this day, artemisinin-based compounds continue to be first-line therapy for malaria, thanks to Professor Tu’s innovative approach to pharmaceutical discovery. Professor Tu received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for her groundbreaking work that has saved millions of lives. She continues to lead the field of science as the Chief Scientist of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal (Wong Yee Ching)

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal born in 1946 in Guangzhou, China was the first scientist to clone human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV) and determine the function of its genes. It was this pivotal work that led to the conclusion that HIV was the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). High rates of AIDS became rampant in the 1970s disproportionately affecting gay men, this led to a harmful stigmatization of HIV, and towards the gay community. The advancement in research by scientists like Dr. Wong-Staal contributed to the destigmatization of AIDS. Dr. Wong-Staal had conducted her Ph.D. in molecular biology at UCLA and was working on her postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) where she studied retroviruses. Through her work at the NCI, she cloned HIV and completed its entire genetic mapping. These specific discoveries led to the development of blood testing for HIV, and later segwayed into her work of repressing HIV in stem cells to function as a treatment for AIDS. However, her research also aided in the advancement of Hepatitis C, cancers, and even COVID-19. It was how she approached HIV that changed how virologists study viruses today. She continued her research to find a cure for AIDS through gene therapy and became the chief scientific officer of the biotechnology firm, Immunosol.

Eunice Newton Foote

Born in 1819, Eunice Newton Foote became the first scientist to discover the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect was coined decades after Newton Foote discovered the interaction of carbon dioxide (CO2) and heat. In 1856, Eunice Netwon Foote placed a series of glass cylinders full of different gases and gaseous mixtures next to sunlight and found that the glass cylinder filled with moist air and CO2 warmed the most. Newton Foote concluded in a paper that this CO2 could be a contributor to a heating planet. This foundation became a cornerstone in climate science. Three years later, an Irish scientist, John Tyndall concluded similar findings and was coined the discoverer of the greenhouse effect and father of climate science. The overlooked findings of Newton Foote are an example of how female scientists have remained in the shadows of history.



Women's Health Blog

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