Celebrating Women’s History Month

By Dr. Janine A. Clayton

dr claytonDuring March, we celebrate Women's History Month to recognize the extraordinary achievements of women. At the Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH), we are acknowledging the contributions of women scientists and clinicians.

Although millions of individuals are vaccinated every year, we rarely think about the dedicated researchers behind them. One of them is Ruth L. Kirschstein, M.D., who made important contributions to vaccines for polio, measles, and rubella.

Born to Eastern European immigrants, she wanted to be a doctor from a very young age, but her journey into vaccine research wasn't easy. In the 1950s, almost all medical schools had a quota for Jewish students and few women were accepted. At Tulane University School of Medicine, she was 1 of only 10 women accepted in her year.

After medical school, Dr. Kirschstein worked at the NIH Division of Biologics Standards (now the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration) developing and refining tests to ensure the safety of vaccines. Her research contributions led to the public use of the Sabin polio vaccine, which nearly eliminated a disease that afflicted 37,000 people every year.

Dr. Kirschstein eventually became the first woman director of an NIH Institute at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. As a director, she was a powerhouse who advocated for increasing the number of underrepresented scientists and personally mentored individuals both within and outside NIH.

Dr. Kirschstein is not the first woman in vaccine research. She is preceded by Margaret Pittman, Ph.D., who conducted research on vaccines against H. influenzae and was also the first woman to head an NIH laboratory. Pearl Kendrick, Ph.D., and Grace Eldering, Ph.D.  (PDF), were two other women scientists who worked on the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine.

Since we've mentioned a few "firsts" regarding vaccines, here's another one: the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was the first developed to prevent HPV types that cause most cervical cancers. Two National Cancer Institute researchers, Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., and John T. Schiller, Ph.D., received the 2017 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for their work on this vaccine. This is a considerable advancement in the development of effective vaccines to prevent cancer in women.

I would also like to recognize Sabra L. Klein, Ph.D. , an associate professor and vaccine researcher at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Klein is taking vaccine research to a new level by identifying the influence of sex on immune response to vaccination. This is important because her research shows that after vaccination, females develop higher antibody responses and are better protected against influenza virus challenge than males.

You can learn more about Dr. Klein's research by joining us at the next ORWH Women's Health Seminar Series. She will present on "Sex Differences in Vaccine Efficacy" at 1:00 p.m. EDT on March 20th. The seminar will be held on NIH's main campus, Building 1, Wilson Hall. The lecture will also be available via videocast.

While Dr. Kirschstein and many of the women mentioned above are no longer with us, their research lives on to fuel the minds of current and future vaccine researchers. The next time you get a vaccine, please remember a few of the pioneering women who helped shaped the vaccine research field.

1. National Institute of General Medical Sciences. (2017). "Who Was Ruth L. Kirschstein, and Why Was the National Research Service Award Program Named After Her?" Accessed March 13, 2018. http://www.nigms.nih.gov/training/pages/ruthkirschstein.aspx
2. Davis, A. (2011). Always There: The Remarkable Life of Ruth Lillian Kirschstein, M.D. National Institutes of Health. Accessed March 13, 2018.https://www.nih.gov/sites/default/files/about-nih/Always_There_0.pdf  (PDF)
3. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. (2017). "The History of Vaccines." Accessed March 13, 2018. https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/blog/pittman-kendrick 
4. National Institutes of Health. (2017). "NCI's Douglas R. Lowy and John T. Schiller to receive 2017 Lasker Award." Accessed March 13, 2018.https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/ncis-douglas-r-lowy-john-t-schiller-receive-2017-lasker-award
5. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Cellular and Molecular Medicine Program: Sabra L. Klein, Ph.D. Accessed March 13, 2018. http://cmm.jhmi.edu/index.php/cmm-faculty/sabra-l-klein-phd/