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Vol. LXII, No. 8
April16, 2010

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Next Up: Rewriting the Annals of Science
Fee, Pinn Tout Women’s History in Medicine, at NIH

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Dr. Elizabeth Fee’s mom begged her to go to cooking school, but learning to cook and clean was the furthest thing from the teenage Fee’s mind. By contrast Dr. Vivian Pinn says she still takes pride in the Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year Award she won in high school. Although two starkly different paths led them to careers at NIH, both Fee and Pinn agree the nation could use more help “Writing Women into the History of Science.” That was the refrain for NIH’s Mar. 17 observance of Women’s History Month.

Adapting the month’s national theme, “Writing Women Back into History,” the 2010 NIH celebration was sponsored by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management. The event refocused attention on the successful National Library of Medicine exhibit “Changing the Face of Medicine,” which debuted at NIH in October 2003 and is now touring the country. Created by the NLM History of Medicine Division that Fee directs, the exhibit salutes the achievements and inspirational stories of notable American women physicians throughout history.


  Dr. Elizabeth Fee  
  Dr. Elizabeth Fee  

As popular and informative as “Changing the Face” has become over the years, a growing consensus believes a similar effort should be launched to place women rightfully in the annals of all scientific disciplines. The NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, which Pinn directs, has already jumpstarted such a project with publication of Women in Science at the National Institutes of Health 2007-2008, a 225-page book featuring nearly 300 distinguished profiles and narratives.

The personal stories are key because, as several participants pointed out, who knows whose story will inspire a youngster to pursue science as a career? For example, Fee’s interest in science—seen as unusual for a girl and strongly discouraged by her parents—was sparked by reading about two high-achieving scientists.

“Domestic science”—the fine art of keeping a household—was the most appropriate and practical pursuit for a girl, Fee’s mother insisted. But fascinated by a magazine article describing the double helix work of Watson and Crick, Fee wanted to pursue biochemistry.

“I wanted to become a scientist and to make great discoveries,” she recalled. “Cooking school was the last place I wanted to go.”

She eventually convinced her parents to let her study chemistry at Cambridge University, but found she “liked reading and thinking about science more than actually doing it.”

ORWH director Dr. Vivian Pinn describes accomplishments of women at NIH over the last two decades.
ORWH director Dr. Vivian Pinn describes accomplishments of women at NIH over the last two decades.

Offered a fellowship for graduate study in the history and philosophy of science and a Fulbright travel grant to leave her home in Ireland and attend Princeton University, Fee discarded her first dissertation topic on the history of structural chemistry to propose instead a history of women in science. Her advisor rejected it, saying, “There’s nothing much to write about.” Fee wound up researching the science of gender differences in Victorian England. Studying that subject, she discovered how men of that era felt about a college education for women: Concentrated learning misdirected vital energy to a woman’s brain thereby draining her uterus of its important force and poorly affecting her ability to carry and rear children.

“A woman was basically a uterus wrapped in an attractive package,” Fee recounted. Audience members chuckled at her description of the theory, but sobered quickly when she recalled that as recently as 2003, some influential men—notably a former president of Harvard—have voiced similar notions.

NCRR director Dr. Barbara Alving offers closing remarks at the Women’s History Month observance.
NCRR director Dr. Barbara Alving offers closing remarks at the Women’s History Month observance.

Fee then traced women’s slow advance in science: After decades of merely assisting husbands, brothers and fathers in scientific pursuits, females gradually were encouraged first to pursue fields “appropriate” for them such as botany and nutrition.

By the early 1900s—the “big science era”—the ranks of women in the sciences rapidly expanded due to a scarcity of men for such work during World War I and the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic.

“Women who wanted to succeed in science usually adopted the ‘Marie Curie strategy’ of working so hard that they would be better than most of the men,” Fee concluded. “Women have made steady gains ever since, culminating with the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine won in 1983 by Dr. Barbara McClintock,” the only woman to win the prize unshared in that category.

Pinn’s talk focused on more recent—and more local—history: She highlighted achievements by women at NIH in the last two decades. First, though, she humorously took issue with any knocks on homemaking studies.

“I learned how to measure a level teaspoon and sew a straight seam even before I learned how to read,” Pinn quipped, noting that her “home ec” award is one she will always cherish because her mother, a school teacher in the 1940s, had earned a master’s degree in so-called domestic science from New York University. The accomplishment was a rarity for a woman of color in the era of segregation.

Pinn used slides to illustrate how the ranks of women in leadership posts at NIH have grown, and to contrast the number of women IC directors in 1991 when Pinn arrived at NIH (2) with the number since (9). She noted that NIH currently has only one female IC scientific director, Dr. Kathryn Zoon of NIAID.

Over the course of its history, ORWH and various collaborating organizations, have addressed women’s health issues from multiple angles, including the need to attract and retain more women in science careers. Concerns the groups have tackled range from institutional culture changes and tenure-track clock extensions to family-friendly work environments and child care provisions.

“I think that mentoring and role-modeling are so important for both women and men to advance in their careers—in science or whatever field,” Pinn pointed out, reiterating the need for more people to share their stories of personal achievement as inspiration for the next generation.

“I think about it as workforce diversity,” said NCRR director Dr. Barbara Alving, noting in closing remarks that enrollment at medical schools is now almost 50 percent women and up to about 80 percent women at veterinary schools.

She concluded, “We’ve come a long way and we’re moving even farther ahead. Workforce diversity is something that we’re never going to be able to say, ‘Okay, that’s done. Let’s look at something new.’ We constantly have to show up—whoever we are…We can be minorities in so many ways—age, gender, race, ethnicity, M.D., Ph.D.—but working together, it’s amazing what we can accomplish.” NIHRecord Icon

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