The Women Who Helped Get Modern Vaccines to Where They Are Today

Following the great news that the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is approved for use last week (30th December 2020), here are some women that over the years have been influential in creating vaccines.

The first is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 – 1762) who introduced the smallpox inoculation into Western Medicine. While visiting the Ottoman Empire, she witnessed inoculations against smallpox. Mary wanted to spare her children suffering the disease, in 1718 she had her 4 y/o son, inoculated. (Inoculation involved a a small sample of pus would be taken from someone who had the disease, wounds opened on the wrists and ankles of the volunteers, and the pus mixed into their bloodstreams). On her return to London, she had her 3 y/o daughter inoculated.

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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Mary promoted the procedure, despite resistance to it being an ‘oriental folk treatment’. For the next few years Mary spent much of her time travelling in her coach between friends’ households, inoculating whoever asked for her help- masters and servants alike. Her daughter, young Mary – who often travelled with her – remembered the ‘looks of dislike’ that often greeted them and the ‘significant shrugs’ of sceptical bystanders. Thank god she persevered, as it inspired Edward Jenner’s vaccination in 1796 and by the 20th century smallpox had been eradicated.

The second is Dr Anna Wessels Williams (1863–1954) who developed a diphtheria vaccine. In 1894, Williams volunteered at the New York City Department of Health’s diagnostic laboratory, the first municipal laboratory in the United States, which had opened just a year earlier in response to a cholera outbreak. Within her first year of work Dr Anna was able to isolate a strain of diphtheria bacillus which could be used to produce the antitoxin for diphtheria, discovered in 1890, in large quantities. This crucial discovery massively increased the availability of the antitoxin and slashed its cost, and so was instrumental in controlling this devastating disease.

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Dr Anna Wessels Williams

Anna even worked on the Rabies vaccine with one developed in 1898. In 1896 Anna traveled to the Pasteur Institute in Paris to work on a scarlet fever antitoxin, as she had done for diphtheria. Her research was unsuccessful, but while there, Anna developed a new interest in the rabies research. On her return to New York, she brought a culture of the virus to be used in the development of vaccines. Anna managed to produce small quantities of a rabies vaccine from this culture.

Dr Pearl Kendrick (1890 – 1980), Dr Grace Eldering (1900 – 1988) and Loney Clinton Gordon, developed whooping cough vaccine. In 1932, Pearland Grace collected bacteria of whooping cough victims by visiting families ravaged by whooping cough, the deadliest childhood disease of their time. By the dim light of kerosene lamps they asked sick children to cough onto each plate. From this they were able to create a vaccine. Working on a limited budget They tested the vaccine on themselves first, before running a successful clinical trial. This resulted in the first vaccine being introduced in America in the 1940’s. They then combined it with two other vaccines (diphtheria and tetanus) into a single shot – known today as the DTP vaccine.

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From left to right sat down: Loney Clinton Gordon, Dr Grace Eldering and Dr Pearl Kendrick

Now Dr Margaret Pittman’s (1901 – 1995) work is linked to that of Pearl, Grace and Loney. Firstly, her work lead to HIB vaccine, which helped prevent meningitis & pneumonia. A pioneering bacteriologist, Pittman’s research helped the development of vaccines against typhoid, cholera and whooping cough. In collaboration with Dr. Pearl Kindrick and Dr. Grace Eldering, who had pioneered an effective whooping cough vaccine but who had been unable to develop a potency assay (a qualitative measure of biological activity), Pittman guided the 1949 initiation of U.S. standards for pertussis vaccine, which also became the basis of the international potency requirement of the World Health Organization. 

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Dr Margaret Pittman

She also discovered six types of Haemophilus-influenzae, one of which (Hib) was linked to serious infections including often-fatal meningitis in young children. Her work led to the development of vaccines against Hib.  The Second World War brought a shift in focus to Pittman’s work and she focused on adverse events after receipt of blood. Her research during the war led to changes in standards for blood transfusions. 

Dr Isabel Morgan (1911 – 1996) was an early and important player in the race to find a polio vaccine. Morgan’s team successfully inoculated monkeys with a killed-virurs vaccine. From 1945-50, her work at Johns Hopkins defined the level of circulating antibodies needed in the blood stream to protect monkeys from an intracerebral challenge from the poliovirus. Her experiments advanced the knowledge needed to develop a viable vaccine. They 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 create polio immunity. Her work fed directly into the development of Jonas Salk’s vaccine against polio in 1955.

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Dr Isabel Morgan

Dr Anne Szarewski (1959-2014) Breakthrough led to the prevention of many cervical cancers. In the 1990s while completing her PhD she also worked on HPV testing for cervical cancer with Jack Cuzick. Anne was the clinical lead on the study that showed that testing for the presence of HPV DNA in cells taken during cervical screening would pick up cases of pre-cancer that were missed by the routine test. This work was followed by a larger trial testing HPV screening. Anne was also a chief investigator, principal investigator and author on HPV vaccine trials. Over 10 years a vaccine was developed to prevent HPV and cervical cancer.

Anne Szarewski
Dr Anne Szarewski

I could not write this blog and not mention Professor Sarah Gilbert. A name the media have left out. As Sarah is the woman who designed the Oxford Vaccine. Having work across research on Malaria, Ebola and now Covid. In an interview for BBC Radio 4 her colleague Prof Teresa Lambe said: “We were quick. As Chinese scientists published the genetic structure of the new virus “over the weekend, the vaccine was pretty much designed. We went pretty fast with it.”

You just get on with it': The Oxford professor carrying the world's hopes  of a coronavirus vaccine | The Independent | The Independent
Professor Sarah Gilbert

I know I speak on behalf of everyone in that we are eternally grateful to Sarah and her team for producing the vaccine. I am also thankful to the women before Sarah, who paved the way to ensure the covid vaccine was a success.

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