Have you heard of Edward Jenner, the inventor of the modern vaccine? Or Jonas Salk, whose polio vaccine was a turning point in the fight against this debilitating disease? If you know something about global health, you’ve probably heard of these vaccine pioneers. But what about the women who also helped lay the foundations for modern immunisation? Meet five remarkable women who pushed forward the frontiers of science.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)

Image via Britannica

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu defied convention by introducing smallpox inoculation into Western medicine. While visiting the Ottoman Empire, she leant about Turkish customs and witnessed the practice of inoculation against smallpox. Lady Mary was eager to spare her children the suffering of smallpox, so in 1718 she had her son Edward inoculated. On her return to London, she promoted the procedure, despite resistance from the medical establishment.

Drs Pearl Kendrick & Grace Eldering (1890-1980, 1900-1988)

Photo via Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame

Working with a limited budget, Eldering and Kendrick researched pertussis (whooping cough), tested their vaccine first on themselves, and then ran a successful clinical trial. This resulted in the first vaccine against the disease being introduced in America in the 1940s.

Following the development of the pertussis vaccine, they combined it with two other vaccines (diphtheria and tetanus) into a single shot, now universally referred to as “DTP”.

Dr Margaret Pittman (1901-1995)

Photo via Encyclopedia of Arkansas. 

Among her many achievements, Pittman is known for her research into the Haemophilus influenzae bacterium. She identified six types of Heamophilus influenzae, labelling them “a” to “f”. Type b (Hib) is the most harmful, causing meningitis and other serious infections. Her work led to the development of vaccines that protect against Hib.

She was also the first woman to lead a National Institutes of Health Laboratory in the US.

Dr Isabel Morgan (1911-1996)

Photo via Wikipedia.

Throughout the 1940s Morgan worked with a team of virologists at Johns Hopkins University in the USA, advancing understanding of polio viruses. She and her team were the first to prove that an inactive or “killed” virus could produce immunity in monkeys, overturning the previous belief that only live viruses could do so.

Her work fed directly into the development of Jonas Salk’s vaccine against polio in 1955. She is also the only woman on the 17 person polio “wall of fame”.

Dr Ruth Bishop (1933-)

Photo via Science In Public Aus.

In 1973, Bishop led a team of researchers that discovered rotavirus, a major cause of severe diarrhoea in children around the world. The discovery, which Bishop attributes to a “mixture of calculated research and serendipity”, has had an enormous impact.

The identification of an infectious cause of deadly diarrhoea kick-started the successful 30-year hunt for a vaccine against it. Today, the vaccines are slowly reaching children in lower income countries, but rotavirus still accounts for an estimated 200,000 deaths per year.

Who did we miss? Tweet us @Gavi to let us know about any female vaccine heroes we left out.