For Women’s History Month: 3 Influential Women In Cancer Research

For Women’s History Month: 3 Influential Women In Cancer Research

As Women’s History Month continues, we’d like to celebrate female researchers who made great achievements in cancer research and helped move the treatment process forward.

There are more female physicians than ever before. The American Medical Association reports that the number of female physicians has increased by over a whopping 400% since 1981.

But there’s still a shortage of women in research. According to the book Debates on U.S. Health Care, women are less likely to be the principal investigators in medical research, and have a harder time getting grant money.

Despite this, women researchers have still made significant contributions in the field of medicine. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at three important women in cancer research.

1. Marie “Madame” Curie

One of the main treatments for cancer is radiation therapy—using high-energy particles like X-rays to destroy cancer cells.  

Radiation therapy dates all the way back to the early 1900s. During World War I, Marie Curie advocated for the use of radium to relieve pain and suffering, according to She also discovered the properties of radioactive elements.

This research led her to discover that radiation could cure cancer, and she developed methods for treating cancer through radiation, says. Madame Curie received her second Nobel Prize in 1911 in recognition of her work in radioactivity.

2. Jane Wright, MD

Chemotherapy is another mainstay of cancer treatment. Just like any medication, dosing is very important. If a child does not get enough medicine, chemo won’t work. If she gets too much, she could have severe side effects.

Dr. Wright was one of the first researchers to test chemotherapy drugs in humans. According to the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), this helped lead to the discovery of effective dosing levels.

Throughout her career, Dr. Wright also studied different ways of administering chemotherapy.

Dr. Wright became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society, AACR notes, and was the only woman on the team of seven physicians who founded the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

She also holds a special place in African-American history—she was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the Harvard University Medical School, AACR says. By 1967, Dr. Wright was the highest-ranking African-American woman in US medicine.

3. Elise Strang L’Esperance, MD

Some cancers are easier to treat when they’re found early on, says the American Academy of Family Physicians. Dr. L’Esperance, a physician who changed her focus to medical research, was a pioneer in the field of early detection and diagnosis.

In 1937, Dr. L’Esperance founded the Kate Depew Strang Cancer Prevention Clinic at the New York Infirmary. According to the American Association of Immunologists, this clinic was the first of its kind in the US. Instead of treating patients, it focused on preventing cancer and detecting it in its early stages.

At the Strang Center, researchers worked to develop new tests for early detection of cancer. It was where the Pap smear—a test used to detect cervical cancer cells—was masterminded. Pap smears are still a part of routine gynecology visits today, and has saved tens of thousands of lives, reports the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

Dr. L’Esperance helped shape the future of preventive medicine that we still use today.

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Jill Beck
I've been an oncologist since 2010. With pediatric oncology, you get continuity of care with families—so you care for children when they're really sick and see them get better.

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