Tips & Advice

From Dr. Liz Herself

March 30, 2021
Important Women in American Medical History – Part 3
Herietta Lacks and Florence Nightingale

Henrietta Lacks and Florence Nightingale

This is my March 2021 series on Important Women in American Medical History. The order of the women I am talking about this year is based only on the order in which they appear in this photo. I hope you enjoy learning about these amazing women!

women in medicine

Did you catch in my last blog post that Dr. Marie Maynard Daly was the first African American Woman to Receive PhD in Chemistry

Henrietta Lacks – Living on Since Her Death in 1951

Henrietta Lacks would not have chosen the reason for her fame – her cancer cells were the first immortal cell line.

At the young age of 31, Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. This was 1951, before the use of the Pap smear to detect cervical cell changes long before they become cancerous. Her doctors at Johns Hopkins University (one of the few places that would provide care for African Americans) took biopsies of her tumor, and then were shocked to realize that while all previous cancer cell lines died in the laboratory, cells from Henrietta Lacks reproduced every 24 hours, and have never stopped!

These HeLa cells – as they were labeled from the first letters of her first and last name – were obtained without her consent. This was common practice at the time, but her family was also not notified until 1975 that these cells were being used in research all around the world. Likewise, her family has never received any compensation for the use of her line of cells, which has been shared around the world for breakthrough research and drug development for polio, AIDS, leukemia and cancer (and even used to test the human response to zero gravity).

Hendrietta LacksFrom her sad diagnosis in January of 1951 to her death in October of the same year, she failed to respond to her radiation treatment, and spent her last few weeks of life in the hospital. In the decades since her death, she has had many posthumous honors bestowed on her. The case of HeLa cells has also caused a national and international reckoning over patient consent and privacy.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a 2017 movie on Netflix I highly recommend that tells this amazing story of a woman who has truly lived on after her death.

Florence Nightingale – Nursing Revolutionary

The British nurse Florence Nightingale (Born 1820, died 1910) revolutionized not only the practice of nursing, but also the running of medical facilities in general. She is considered the founder of modern nursing.

During the Crimean War (Russia vs. a European alliance in the 1850’s), Nightingale watched more soldiers die of the disease than from their wounds. By organizing (1) the cleaning of the military hospital facility,  (2) bathing of the wounded soldiers, and (3) laundering of the bedsheets, she dramatically lowered the soldiers’ chances of dying. Remember, germ theory was not yet known!

On returning to England, she established the first nursing school in 1860. Women she trained and mentored went out to Australia and America to carry out the advances she had made. This included Linda Richards, known as “America’s first trained nurse” who went on to pioneer advances in nursing in the U.S. and Japan.

Long before PowerPoint, Nightingale used easy to understand visuals to explain statistical data. She was the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society in 1859. Encouraged by her family, who went against the thinking of the time that women should not be educated, Nightingale wrote pamphlets, articles and books advancing feminist thought and activism in the 1800’s. She was herself deeply religious, but was not a big fan of organized religion, and she strongly opposed discrimination based on religion.

Her legacy is so profound, that International Nurses Day is celebrated on Florence Nightingale’s birthday on May 12th. Honored around the world for her contributions to public health and nursing, her influence lives on in each and every nurse who upon graduation recites the “Nightingale Pledge.”

“I attribute my success to this:—I never gave or took an excuse.” Florence Nightingale

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