A Look at Just a Few Women and Their Work in the Greatest Public Health Achievement of All Time

March 26, 2024

IC Blog, Resource, & Event Entry Featured Images (25)

It’s no secret, vaccines are a powerhouse in protecting public health. In fact, vaccines prevent 4-5 million deaths worldwide each year! What’s lesser known is the powerhouse role women have played in the history of vaccine development, administration, and uptake. Women have been instrumental in what is largely considered the greatest public health achievement of all time. This Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at just a few:

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who lived from 1689 to 1762, was a British author and poet. Her husband served as the British ambassador to Turkey. It was in Turkey where Montagu noticed women who seemed to evade smallpox, lacking the telltale scars from infection on their skin. She learned from them the practice of inoculation, which involved making small cuts in the skin and placing small amounts of liquid infected with smallpox in the cuts. She even inoculated her son while there. In 1721 upon returning to Britain, there was a severe smallpox outbreak. She inoculated her daughter and shared the practice with physicians. Word spread, and others also successfully inoculated their own children. However, not unlike today, she found herself amid misinformation about the practice of inoculation and was ridiculed. She did not know it at the time, but the practice she brought from Turkey would be key to Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine 75 years later. Jenner, who was inoculated as a child with this method, recognized that dairymaids who contracted cowpox seemed to be immune from smallpox. Hypothesizing that the two illnesses were related, Jenner employed the same method Montagu brought from Turkey using fluid from cowpox to inoculate people against smallpox. It is much thanks to Montagu that Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine. Today, people no longer get smallpox; it is the only disease to have been successfully eradicated from the globe.

Henrietta Lacks

At age 31 in the early 1950s, Henrietta Lacks sought care for what was diagnosed as cervical cancer. She received treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital – one of the only places that would treat Black people during that time. During her treatment, doctors took samples of her cells without her or her family’s knowledge; consent was not required at that time. While Lacks died shortly after her diagnosis, her cells had a unique ability to survive and reproduce. Applied in the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping, cancer research, and even COVID-19 vaccines, the cells have proven key to many modern medical innovations. They continue to be used today and are known as “HeLa” cells. 

Rosalynn Carter and Betty Bumpers

After having worked to increase vaccination uptake in Georgia and Arkansas, respectively, Former First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, and Former First Lady of Arkansas, Betty Bumpers joined together in 1991 amid a measles outbreak in the U.S. to form Every Child By Two (now known as Vaccinate Your Family). The two women traveled across the country to help bolster vaccination uptake nationally and help build immunization coalitions across the U.S. Bumpers and Carter are responsible for laws mandating school immunizations, and the coalitions they helped form positively impact pro-vaccination policies nationwide. Policies promoting immunization uptake and state vaccination requirements for school entry safeguard both students and faculty alike in an environment where the likelihood for disease transmission is high.

Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire, PhD

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke amid a race against time and a mounting death toll, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire and her team at the National Institute of Health would spend countless hours developing what would become the Moderna mRNA vaccine. Having studied coronaviruses for over five years, Corbett-Helaire built on her previous research which determined spike proteins to be the key to coronavirus vaccines. Aside from this work, Corbett-Helaire stands as a role model for other aspiring women of color, allowing them to see themselves as leaders in the field of science.  

This list includes just a few of the countless women who have made a difference in the vaccine world. We could never include them all in just one blog post! Immunize Colorado celebrates all the women involved in elevating the essential role vaccines play in preventing illness and promoting healthy communities in Colorado and beyond! To learn more about the roles women have played in vaccine history, check out The women who made modern vaccines work and Vaccines and Women’s History Month.

Immunize Colorado was formed in 1991 in response to alarmingly low vaccination rates across the state. At the time, only about 50% of Colorado’s children were adequately vaccinated. A group of physicians and other concerned individuals came together to strategize how to protect Coloradans from vaccine-preventable diseases and increase vaccine uptake. Much work remains. Discover ways to support our commitment to healthy Colorado communities or make a donation today!

Immunize Colorado