Making Medical History

Mar 1, 2023

March 1st marks the beginning of Women’s History Month. President Jimmy Carter in 1980 declared the first official women’s history week, and seven years later, Congress expanded the celebration to last the entire month. The 2023 Women’s History Month theme is Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories. Advent Health Partners is telling the stories of four outstanding women who made their mark in healthcare

Dr. Hattie Alexander: Bacterial Meningitis Treatment

Hattie Alexander graduated from Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, and secured a job as a bacteriologist for the U.S. Public Health Service and Maryland Public Health Service. She worked there for several years and, based on her experience, was admitted to The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and received her M.D. in 1930. She continued her training at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Columbia University College.

At this time, bacterial meningitis was almost always fatal in infants and toddlers. Alexander noted the success of other researchers who found a rabbit serum successful in treating pneumonia. Over the next decade, she dedicated her time to studying influenzal meningitis and eventually found an effective cure. A few years after this discovery, infant mortality due to meningitis was virtually eliminated.

Among Dr. Alexanders’ accolades and achievements are the following:

  • Received the E. Mead Johnson Award from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1942
  • Received the  Elizabeth Blackwell Award from the New York Infirmary in 1956
  • Was the first woman to receive the Oscar B. Hunter Memorial Award from the American Therapeutic Society
  • The President of the American Pediatric Society
  • Published 150+ academic papers

Dr. Virginia Apgar: The Apgar Score

Apgar completed her MD in 1933 as one of nine women in a class of ninety at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She immediately started a surgery internship at Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Though she excelled, her mentor worried that her prospects are a female surgeon would falter during the Depression and suggested she pursue anesthesiology. She was soon the Director of Anesthesia, becoming the first woman to head a division at Presbyterian.

With an interest in obstetrical anesthesia, she began to study maternal anesthesia and its effects on newborns. Soon, she developed a scoring system to quickly and accurately determine the health of newborns in the minutes following birth. The Apgar system became standard practice and is now used worldwide for newborn babies.

Some of Apgar’s other notable achievements:

  • Founded the anesthesiology education program at Presbyterian, creating a safer anesthesiology practice for mothers and babies, effectively lowering neonatal mortality rates.
  • Became the head of the Division of Congenital Malformations for the National Foundation-March of Dimes
  • Became the Director of Basic Medical Research and Vice-President for Medical Affairs for the National Foundation
  • Published 60+ scientific articles

Dr. Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Dr. Rachel Fuller Brown: Antifungal Treatments

In 1927 Elizabeth Hazen completed her doctoral degree in microbiology following a hard-fought educational path. Despite doubt and adversity from university authorities and an academic hiatus to serve in WWI army diagnostic laboratories, Hazen completed her education at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

After graduating, Hazen soon took charge of the Bacterial Diagnosis Laboratory at New York City’s Division of Laboratories and Research. During this research, she discovered new antifungal agents in a soil sample. At this point, she needed a chemist’s perspective, and she met Rachel Brown.

Rachel Fuller Brown graduated with a doctorate in chemistry and bacteriology in 1924. Already well-respected for her work before graduation, Brown worked with the Albany division of New York City’s Division of Laboratories and Research Bacterial Diagnosis Laboratory.

Brown and Hazen worked together seamlessly, despite living and working ~200 miles from one another—their success relied heavily on the reliability of the 1940s U.S. Post Office. Hazen would cultivate organisms from soil samples. If she found any that actively fought against Candida albicans and Cryptococcus neoformans fungi, she would put the sample in a mason jar and send it to Hazen via snail mail. Brown sent hundreds of samples this way; unfortunately, most agents that successfully killed the fungi were toxic to animals. One day though, they discovered what they aptly named Nystatin, which is still used today as one of the most effective treatments for fungal infections.