A quarter-century ago, in September 1990, the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health was born! Many factors made the timing right for creating a dedicated federal entity to focus on the health of women over their lifespan. Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, an influential NIH advocate for women and women’s careers, played an instrumental role in working with stakeholders across academia and government to establish ORWH. She insisted that the office’s name be “Research on Women’s Health,” and not “Women’s Health Research,” to emphasize the central role of research in its mission. Around the same time, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-CO), Representative Constance Morella (R-MD), Senator Olympia Snowe (R-MA), and other members of the then-Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues called for the appropriate inclusion of women in clinical studies. NIH’s first woman director Dr. Bernadine Healy, appointed the next year in 1991, took a keen interest in the office and would play a central role in getting it off the ground.
This past September 29, in 2015, we celebrated 25 years of progress with a subset of those Congresswomen and other special guests at a Congressional hearing sponsored by Women’s Policy, Inc. Among the more than 200 in attendance was Dr. Vivian Pinn, ORWH’s first full-time director and key designer of many programs still in existence today.
We are now 25 years old — in woman-years, this is the prime of life. And we could not be more excited about possibilities for the future 5, 10, and 25 years.
It seems obvious to us who work in biomedical research that what we learn in the lab and in clinical trials is what forms the basis for what we know about health. But research almost never follows a straight path from idea to cure; it is an iterative process that relies on advances in both experiments done in cells and animals as well as in human studies with research participants.
Even then, the connections don’t come together automatically – that is where collaboration and policy can have a huge effect, and where support from Congress and all of our stakeholders is so essential. For example, the Women’s Health Initiative , put into place by Dr. Healy, is still active today and has had an enormous, positive impact on the livelihood of women across the country. It has benefited from enthusiastic public participation.
Recently, Senator Barbara Mikulski joined forces with Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) to pass Resolution 242, a Senate resolution that commemorates the founding and mission of ORWH, details many significant advances that the office has supported, and encourages future research on the role of sex and gender in health. Women lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives followed suit with their own unanimously endorsed resolution.
I am proud to say that this is exactly what we are doing – in particular focusing efforts NIH-wide, and with the NIH-funded extramural community – to ensure that sex is routinely considered as a biological variable in all NIH-funded research with vertebrate animals and humans and putting science to work for the health of all women.
Join us as we begin another chapter in turning discovery into health … for women, men, and boys and girls! As a start, consider attending a special version of our semi-annual NIH Advisory Committee on Research on Women’s Health Meeting October 20. We’ll have guest speakers and great discussion that surely make it worth your while.