Throughout the history of medicine, the contributions of women have frequently been overlooked or forgotten – even today, women in STEM fields often earn less than male colleagues, are underrepresented in senior roles and are more likely to be rejected for research funding.
At Spirit, where 60% of the team is female, we remain committed to celebrating women’s contributions and promoting gender equality. That’s why, this World Immunisation Week, we’re focusing on the unsung women of vaccination: highlighting the varied roles women have played in the development, discovery and distribution of vaccines.
Doctors treating Henrietta Lacks for cervical cancer in 1951 passed samples of her cancerous cells to researchers without consent. Her cells, which came to be known as the HeLa cell line, were found to be ‘immortal’ (they can reproduce indefinitely under certain conditions) and are still used in genetic and medicinal research to this day – including in the development of vaccines for polio and COVID-19. Her contribution was finally officially recognised in 2013, more than 60 years after her death.
The women of COVID-19 include the scientists developing vaccines and the leaders of national and international health bodies working to ensure swift, equitable vaccine distribution:
- Professor Sarah Gilbert led the team that produced the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, Professor Katalin Karikó worked on the mRNA technology which would be used in Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, BioNTech cofounder and chief medical officer Dr Özlem Türeci led the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
- Kate Bingham chaired the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a board chair for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Jane Halton is chair of global vaccine development partnership CEPI, Dr Soumya Swaminathan is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first Chief Scientist Aurélia Nguyen is a co-founder and managing director at COVAX, a global platform for accelerating vaccine development and equitable delivery.
Dr Anne Szarewski led the team which developed the first vaccine protecting against HPV, which is the root cause of more than 95% of cervical cancer cases. The UK’s HPV vaccination programme, first introduced in 2008, has ‘almost eliminated’ cervical cancer among women and girls born after September 1995.
Dr Grace Eldering and Dr Pearl Kendrick, along with their laboratory assistant Loney Clinton Gordon, developed the first safe and effective vaccine for pertussis (whooping cough). Operating after hours in a borrowed laboratory and on a shoestring budget, Eldering and Kendrick implemented pioneering diagnostic and quarantine standards, developed new methods of growing and inactivating pertussis bacteria to create a safe vaccine, and performed the first large-scale controlled clinical trial of a pertussis vaccine.
Mrs Bayley of Hope Hall, near Manchester, vaccinated more than 2,500 people in the Manchester area against smallpox, incentivising potential recipients by offering a five-shilling reward to anyone who contracted smallpox after receiving the vaccine. Only one recipient returned to claim their five shillings, under ‘highly dubious’ circumstances.
Anthropologist Professor Heidi Larson is the founder and director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, which aims to track, analyse and combat misinformation and hesitation around vaccines. She has worked with UNICEF, Gavi and the World Health Organization on vaccine advocacy and communication, and is the author of Stuck: how vaccine rumours start and why they won’t go away, which explores the spread of vaccine misinformation and how it can be addressed.