Recognizing Women in History All Year Round

Women in history — and women making history — featured in this post.
From left to right in the top row: Mary Lasker, Elizabeth Blackwell, Hope Hopps, Florence Sabin, Margaret Pittman, Patricia Palma, and Selma DeBakey. Middle row: Faye Abdellah, Deirdre Cooper Owens, Rosalind Franklin, Inez Holmes, Alice Evans, and Lois DeBakey. Bottom row: Maxine Singer, Virginia Apgar, Barbara McClintock, Sarah Stewart, Bernadine Healy, and Rana Hogarth.

Guest post by Susan L. Speaker, PhD, Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program of the History of Medicine Division (HMD) at the NIH National Library of Medicine (NLM), and Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, Chief of HMD at NLM.

One important role of NLM staff is to research, curate, explain, and make available historical collection materials. In doing so, our historians, librarians, archivists, and exhibition specialists prioritize the history of underrepresented groups, stories of advocacy and change, and materials that demonstrate the relevance of history to current events. Although this Women’s History Month will soon conclude, we recognize women who have made a difference in the history of health care and medicine — as well as women who make history — year round.

NLM’s collections span ten centuries, encompass a variety of digital and physical formats, and originate from nearly every part of the globe. For many years, through a constellation of research, curation, and public programs connected to these collections, we have shared the stories of women — healers, naturalists, midwives, nurses, physicians, scientists, artists, advocates, and patients.

These individuals have included — among many others — Faye Abdellah, who became the first nurse to achieve the rank of Rear Admiral, Upper Half, a two-star rank, in the U.S. uniformed services, as well as the first nurse and woman in the 200-year history of the United States Public Health Service to hold the distinguished position of Deputy Surgeon General; Virginia Apgar, the neonatologist who developed the Apgar scoring system for evaluating newborns; and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree from an American medical school, overcoming many obstacles and establishing a foundation for American women physicians. We have also featured Selma and Lois DeBakey, icons of both medical literature preservation and communications; Bernadine Healy, the first female Director of the NIH, and Inez Holmes, World War II veteran and nurse who trained at the Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium for the treatment of African American patients in Virginia.

Among the others we have recognized through our curation are geneticists Barbara McClintock and Maxine Singer; chemist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray diffraction images of DNA revealed its helical structure; embryologist, cell physiologist, and public health administrator Florence Sabin; and philanthropist Mary Lasker, whose public health advocacy helped to spur a vast expansion of NIH.

Through our curation we have also brought forward historical knowledge about many groups of women and their wide-ranging experiences, expertise, interests, and roles in medicine and science. These groups have included women of the Frontier Nursing Service, women who composed unique, handwritten “receipt” books in which they noted, tested, and revised formulas for household remedies for common medical problems, as well as women physicians and nurses in the armed services of World War I and World War II. We have also told important stories about women who changed the face of medicine through their leadership and expertise, and those who confronted domestic violence and improved women’s lives.

We have also shown how women’s historical presence is sometimes obscured in larger accounts and must be made visible through careful reading and piecing together textual and visual evidence. Such curation enables us to reveal the stories of women who worked in labs at NIH, like Hope Hopps, as well as lab workers who worked in the California State Hygiene Lab in Berkeley just before World War I, and medical students who gathered tuberculosis patient data at Johns Hopkins University at the turn of the last century. NLM is also steward of the papers of early twentieth-century women bacteriologists whose important work is not widely known, including Alice Evans, Sarah Stewart, and Margaret Pittman. We collect and make these papers available to interested investigators, preserving their stories for future research.

Along with our many efforts focused on highlighting the experiences and voices of women in our collections, we also amplify the voices of today’s women historians, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, who have studied our collections to advance their research. This month, we welcomed to our NLM History Talk series Patricia Palma, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Historical and Geographic Sciences at the University of Tarapacá, Arica, Chile. Dr. Palma spoke about her research on homeopathic therapies in Peru during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, drawing on unique materials held by our institution. Last month, we welcomed Deirdre Cooper Owens, PhD, the Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine & Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dr. Cooper Owens spoke about women whose stories of enslavement are part of the history of gynecology in the United States. In April, we will welcome Rana A. Hogarth, PhD, Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who will speak on how people of African descent became targets of eugenic study during the early decades of the twentieth century. 

Notably, many of these curatorial efforts are themselves brought you by the women of NLM —archivists, librarians, historians, and exhibition and technical specialists. So, as we work year round to recognize women in history and connect with women making history, we also recognize each and every one of our colleagues who are themselves making history through their public service here in the world’s largest biomedical library!

Dr. Speaker has been Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program since 2002. She conducts research, selects documents, and writes in-depth contextual narratives for the Profiles in Science project, and she carries out other historical work for HMD including articles, blog posts, presentations, and oral histories on a variety of topics. She is also the historical consultant for the NLM Web Collecting and Archiving Working Group. Dr. Speaker is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

As Chief of the NLM HMD, Dr. Reznick leads all aspects of the division in cooperation with his colleagues and has over two decades of leadership experience in federal, national-nonprofit, and academic spaces. As a cultural historian, he also maintains a diverse, interdisciplinary, and highly collaborative historical research portfolio supported by the library and based on its diverse collections and associated programs. Dr. Reznick is author of three books and numerous book chapters and journal articles, including, as co-author with his colleague Kenneth M. Koyle of “History matters: in the past, present & future of the NLM” published by the Journal of the Medical Library Association in 2021.

Learn more about many more women in medical history—and women making medical history—through the NLM HMD blog Circulating Now, Profiles in Science, @nlm_collections on Instagram, and the free NIH Videocast archive of NLM History Talks

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day Safely

Guest post by George F. Koob, PhD, Director of the NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

 Alcohol-induced blackouts are gaps in a person’s memory for events that occurred while they were intoxicated. During alcohol-induced blackouts, which are linked to high BAC, people remain conscious, but they can’t remember events that occurred while drinking. They can occur when someone drinks on an empty stomach, drinks quickly, or engages in binge drinking. At high BACs, most cognitive abilities (e.g., impulse control, attention, judgment, and decision-making) are significantly impaired, making the intoxication level associated with blackouts especially dangerous.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Because drinking alcohol is a large part of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities for many people, this is a good time to be mindful of how alcohol can impact your celebrations and your health.

Some people may binge drink on St. Patrick’s Day. Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to a level of 0.08% — the legal limit for driving in the United States — or higher. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men in about 2 hours.

Binge drinking is dangerous. Serious safety risks include unintentional injuries from car crashes and falls, as well as alcohol-induced blackouts and overdoses. Binge drinking also increases the risk of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. Even a BAC less than 0.08% can result in memory impairment and attention and coordination issues that may put people at risk for unintentional injuries.

An alcohol overdose occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions begin to shut down. Symptoms of alcohol overdose include mental confusion, difficulty remaining conscious, vomiting, seizures, trouble breathing, slow heart rate, clammy skin, dulled responses such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking), and extremely low body temperature. Alcohol overdose can lead to permanent brain damage or death. If you suspect that someone has an alcohol overdose, call 911 immediately.

It’s important to note that drinking even small amounts of alcohol can pose risks to your health under certain conditions. For example, drinking any amount could pose a risk if you have a chronic health condition, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, or take a medication that interacts badly with alcohol — an effect that can be potentially fatal. It is safest for women to avoid alcohol altogether if they are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

Individuals who don’t typically drink much alcohol or who are not familiar with the alcohol content of certain alcoholic beverages may indulge more than usual during holidays and other events. As a result, they may underestimate their level of alcohol consumption and not recognize their level of impairment, leading to potentially hazardous situations.

Tips for a healthy holiday

Common over-the-counter and prescription medications known to interact with alcohol include aspirin, acetaminophen, cold and allergy medicines, cough syrup, sleeping pills, narcotic pain medications, and anxiety or depression medicines as well as some herbal remedies. Since these medications can take time to clear the body, problems can occur even if they are taken several hours before or after consuming alcohol. The combination of consuming alcohol and using a prescription sedative-hypnotic or opioid pain reliever can be deadly.

This week and during all holidays please be mindful of how much alcohol constitutes a standard alcohol drink and how much you are consuming. If you are hosting a party, be sure to have plenty of alcohol-free drinks and snacks available for your guests. Mocktails are growing in popularity and could be an alcohol-free option. Such items can help people stay hydrated and/or slow the absorption of alcohol in the body, thereby reducing peak alcohol concentration in the blood. It is important to take the necessary steps to help ensure your well-being and the safety of your guests.

NIAAA’s alcohol calculators can help you assess the alcohol content of beverages in common container sizes, such as a beer and the number of standard drinks in a cocktail — and help predict blood alcohol concentrations and calorie consumption.

Dr. Koob is an internationally recognized expert on alcohol, stress, and the neurobiology of alcohol and drug addiction. At NIAAA, Dr. Koob provides leadership in the national effort to reduce the public health burden associated with alcohol misuse. Dr. Koob also oversees a broad portfolio of alcohol research ranging from basic science to epidemiology, diagnostics, prevention, and treatment. He also is a Senior Investigator at the NIH National Institute on Drug Abuse, where his laboratory is studying the neurobiology of drug and alcohol addiction

Happy Heart Health Month, Valentine!

This week in the United States, along with many other countries around the world, we celebrate Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day celebrations have varied over the centuries, and many of us, myself included, send greetings to those we love — spouses, children, and dear friends — to strengthen the bond of affection. Valentine’s Day was first marked as a romantic celebration during the reign of Emperor Claudius II around AD 270, when St. Valentine labored to heal the hearts and bodies of those imprisoned by the emperor. His kindnesses not only provided a sense of being loved and supported, but also, according to some legends, even brought at least one person back from the dead. So, for more than two millennia, people have linked the ideas of affection and healthy hearts.

However, if you scan even a few of the more than 33 million citations in NLM’s PubMed biomedical literature database, you’ll find that we now know that it takes more than affection to make a heart healthy and, in turn, a healthy heart powers one to build affectionate bonds with others!

Medicine and healthy lifestyles go together to make healthy hearts! We’ve got research showing how lifestyle modifications can help prevent AND treat heart failure and how medications, in addition to lifestyle behaviors including regular physical activity, can help with the management of high blood pressure. There’s also research proposing an explanation of why loneliness disrupts metabolic pathways that contribute to cardiovascular disease (conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels), and how social relationships can influence the risk of death.   

Healthy lifestyle and self-care concept with food, sports and nature icons arranged in a heart shape

Yet, even though we know so much about how to keep our hearts healthy, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, causing one in four deaths each year. Despite significant progress in reducing deaths from heart disease, which have been declining since 1950, this progress appears to have stalled in some parts of the country.

Why, if we know what to do, do we not take steps that are effective in improving heart health?

Well, looking back through our PubMed holdings, you can find many explanations for why health behavior changes have not occurred, and what might be done to alter this course. I am encouraged by the re-examination of theories of behavior change with a call to take into account the social, cultural, and economic factors that influence behavior. This perspective matches well the work of one of my NIH colleagues, Shannon N. Zenk, PhD, MPH, RN, FAAN. Dr. Zenk is the Director of the National Institute of Nursing Research and established a program for research examining how neighborhoods, food choice options, and socioeconomic status contributes to health outcomes. The right combination of personal action and communities designed to help people adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors may be just what we need to complement the effective use of medications. There’s hope for those healthy hearts!!

So, this year, as you connect to the hearts you love, make sure you connect to the heart most important to you – your own! Small acts of self-care, like taking walks, getting quality sleep, and making healthy meals, help your heart. And don’t forget to nurture the relationships with those you love – you’ll improve your chances to love longer!

Bring on the New Year!

Marking the turning of the years is a way to make peace with what is and prepare for what will be. There’s a beautiful night passage that I’ve been drawn to reflect on this week:

It is night after a long day.

What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

These words urge us to accept where we are without judgement as we look forward to the new year.

So, what will 2022 look like for me, my family, and NLM? I am looking forward with hopes of more togetherness – at work, with friends, and with society. I am renovating a 110-year-old home in Easton, Maryland to use as a weekend getaway and vacation home. I am looking forward to meeting neighbors and reinvigorating this beautiful, old structure. My family is looking forward to weddings, graduations, retirements, and other milestones across my nine siblings and 37 nieces and nephews. My 92-year-old mom will move to an independent living facility—bringing treasured possessions from the home she shared with my dad along with the anticipation of making new friends.

NLM has big plans for 2022 as well! We anticipate a gradual return to the physical workspace. However, we won’t be returning to work as we knew it almost 2 years ago; we’ve learned a lot about working remotely, and many staff have found joy and satisfaction with this new way of working. We expect that staff will find a balance between working on campus and working elsewhere.

NLM leadership is working with all supervisors and staff to make sure the return to the physical workspace is a safe, positive, and meaningful experience for everyone. We are tasked with discerning what type of work is best done when one is onsite at NLM and what is best accomplished when working remotely. What we don’t want is to bring our valuable workforce back to the physical NLM location only to have them sit in virtual meetings all day!

With less restrictions on travel, I expect to see our staff attending professional meetings and providing informative talks at conferences once again. This will be particularly valuable for our trainees as it helps socialize them into the professional societies that will form their lifelong career support network. I’ve empaneled a “Future of Work” council, not to plan for 2022, but to look into the distant future to envision what work might be like and how NLM can best organize itself to meet the challenges of the future.

In 2022, NLM will continue to work with the rest of NIH to rectify the impact of structural racism on science and the scientific workforce. Under the UNITE Initiative, hundreds of people across NIH are envisioning ways to create a workplace that is free of harassment, inclusive and welcoming to all, and achieves the highest level of scientific impact by engaging a diverse workforce addressing the challenges needed to eliminate health disparities.

We anticipate that the renovation of our building will continue at full speed. All of us will be challenged to call on our sense of flexibility as we move toward a stronger infrastructure that will take us into our third century.

NLM will continue to acquire, preserve, and disseminate scientific literature to make it easier for scientists, clinicians, patients, and the public to acquire information about clinical trials and health concerns, and make our genomic databases more accessible and more useful for society. Our investigators will leverage the new collaborations they forged during the COVID-19 pandemic to augment their longstanding investments in computational biology and clinical health informatics research. We will bring new scientists into our workforce and strengthen our technical and administrative services.

We’ve got a big year ahead – what would you like to see us accomplish? And, more importantly, I’d love to hear your hopes for the coming year!

[1] The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. (1988). A New Zealand Prayer Book. The Office of the General Synod.

Happy Holiday Season!

It’s the holiday season and a time for celebration, reflection, and catching up with family and friends. This year, I am struck by two themes: the celebration of light and darkness, and the time-honored traditions found in special foods and decorations.

For me, a winter aficionado with strong Irish roots, my holidays began with Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”). Samhain is a Celtic festival that marks the “wintering of the world” – that necessary time of slowing down, becoming quiet, and resting. As I write this blog, millions of people across the globe are celebrating the festival of Diwali. Diwali is a five-day celebration marking the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. Families gather over Diwali in households decorated with vibrant flowers and candles, enjoying sweets in acknowledgement of the year’s bountiful harvest.

This year, Hanukkah began at sundown on November 28 and ended December 6. This eight-day Jewish holiday commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem as a festival of lights remembering the miracle of the oil lamp that burned for eight days. For those who celebrate Christmas, this is both a secular as well as a religious festival including special prayers and church services, household decorations, sparkling trees, and sweet treats. In many places you might find luminarias, small paper sacks filled with sand that support candles creating beautiful lights along streets and up pathways in many neighborhoods inspired by traditions arising from Central and South America. Kwanzaa celebrates African heritage and identity, beginning the day after Christmas lasting for several days. During Kwanzaa people light candles, eat special foods recognizing the “first fruits” of the harvest, and place special symbols around their homes.

Light plays a leading role in many winter celebrations. During this time of year, at least in the northern hemisphere, light is a cherished resource dispelling the darker days and cold weather inspiring vision and hope. Light serves as a symbol of many things to many people, but to me, light symbolizes goodness and knowledge and has special meaning to the National Library of Medicine. NLM brings knowledge to the world 24/7, and I personally take this time to remember the “light” that NLM brings to the world.

NLM has a bit less to do with food and decorations, but we are filled with books, articles, and artifacts about nutrition and symbolism. We can extend the celebration of food and decorations to NLM. In 2016, NLM’s History of Medicine division launched a special exhibition, “Fire and Freedom: Food & Enslavement in Early America.” This exhibit illustrated the important connection between meals and power dynamics – you can visit the online exhibition here. NLM’s digital collection includes pictures of holiday events across time and around the world – you can look here for a poster urging Americans to Buy Christmas Seals, Fight Tuberculosis and here for a September 1917 list of suggestions from the American Red Cross for Christmas packets for our military personnel at home and abroad.

As you experience the lights and marvel at the foods and decorations of this holiday season, in whatever way you celebrate, please take with you the good wishes of the National Library of Medicine!

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