International Women's Day: Five Women Who Changed Science

Published: 03.10.2022


A career in science was far from a given for women in the past centuries. Nevertheless, they shaped medicine and natural sciences with their research. On International Women's Day, we introduce five women who dedicated themselves to their passion for research, despite all obstacles - and thus inspired others.


Rahel Hirsch (1870-1953)

Because women were not allowed to study in her time, Rahel Hirsch moved to Zurich in 1898. Hirsch, born in Frankfurt am Main in 1870, studied medicine in Switzerland and later moved to Leipzig and Strasbourg, where women were allowed to continue their studies. After her doctorate, she initially worked as an assistant at the Second Medical Clinic of the Charité in Berlin. There, she became head of the polyclinic in 1908. In 1913, she became the first woman in Prussia to receive a professorship. Six years later, she established herself as a physician for internal medicine with her own practice in Berlin. Due to her Jewish background, the National Socialists withdrew her license to practice medicine in 1933 and her professional license five years later. In 1938, Hirsch decided to flee to Great Britain, where she worked as a laboratory assistant and translator because her license to practice medicine was not recognized. Throughout her life, Hirsch advocated for women's health and gender-specific counseling, and her book "The Physical Culture of Women" was also published. The last years of her life until her death in 1953 were spent in various mental hospitals. She suffered from depression, delusions, and paranoia. Giving up her beloved profession and the persecution by the National Socialists had left their mark on her.


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Florence Rena Sabin (1871-1953)

"I hope that my studies will encourage other women, especially young women, to dedicate their lives to the greater interests of the mind," Florence Rena Sabin once said. The physician and scientist was born on November 9, 1871, and was one of the few women of her time who made a career in research. In 1913, she became the first woman to hold a professorship at the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore. Eleven years later, the American Association of Anatomists elected Sabin as their first female president. Sabin was also a pioneer with her start in 1925 at the Rockefeller Institute, where she became their first female scientific director. There, she worked, among other things, on new treatments for tuberculosis. Sabin's last major goal was to improve the public health system, before she died on October 3, 1953, in Denver.


Gerty Theresa Cori (1896-1957)

Thanks to her wealthy upbringing, Gerty Theresa Cori, born on August 15, 1896, had the opportunity to graduate from high school and begin studying medicine at the University of Prague. It was here that she met her husband, Carl Ferdinand Cori, and the two immigrated to the United States in 1922. The couple initially worked at the State Institute for Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo. While her husband took on a research position, Cori was only allowed to work in the laboratory. Nine years later, the Coris moved to St. Louis. Here, Carl Cori became the head of the Pharmacology Department at Washington University, while his wife once again only got an assistant position at the Cancer Research Center. Nevertheless, the Coris worked together, moved to the Biochemistry Institute, and researched intermediary metabolism, the processing of sugar in muscles, and the effects of insulin and adrenaline in sugar metabolism. In 1947, Cori became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine, along with her husband, for their discovery of the sugar metabolism. Shortly after, Gerty Cori was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder. Despite this, she accepted a professorship in biochemistry at Washington University in St. Louis. She died of the disease at the age of 61 in 1957.


Gertrude Belle Ellion (1918-1999)

The cancer death of her grandfather led her to drug research: Born on January 23, 1918, Gertrude Belle Ellion wanted to find a cure for the disease and studied chemistry at New York University - at that time the only woman in her program. In 1944, she started as an assistant to George Hitchings in the research laboratory of the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome. Together, the two developed pharmacological agents, including the first immunosuppressant, which reduced the functions of the immune system and was used for organ transplants because it prevented organ rejection. The development of mercaptopurine for the treatment of leukemia is considered Ellion and Hitchings' most outstanding achievement. In 1988, the two were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their research.


Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Already as a young girl, she was passionate about natural sciences: Born on July 25, 1920 in London, Rosalind Franklin studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics before specialising in the structural analysis of molecules using X-rays. In 1951, she started her research on the structure of DNA at King's College. During her work, the X-ray image "No. 51" was created, which showed the spiral arrangement of deoxyribonucleic acid. However, three men were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962 for the discovery of the DNA double helix. Molecular biologists Francis Crick and James Watson, as well as physicist Maurice Wilkins, had advanced their research using Franklin's X-ray image and an internal report by the scientist that was leaked to them without her consent. Franklin was not aware of the recognition given to the three men. The researcher had died four years earlier from the effects of cancer - but without her contribution, the scientists would probably never have won the highly acclaimed prize.


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