7 Women Who Made Breakthroughs in Cardiology, Surgery, or Cancer

March 28, 2023 by MORE Health Staff

Women’s History Month is ending, but let’s face it: Women have played a long and vital role in shaping American history, providing a launchpad for our current and future endeavors. For that alone, they deserve recognition and celebration all year long. 

Many people request our second medical opinions for cancer, heart disease, and surgery, so we thought we’d shine a light on 7 women who have made a significant and lasting mark in those fields.

1) Helen Taussig

Many people have Helen Taussig to thank for making it to adulthood. In 1944, Taussig became known as the founder of pediatric cardiology after she and two colleagues developed an operation and shunt for a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot (ToF) or “blue baby” syndrome. Before the procedure existed, 25% of babies with ToF didn’t make it to their first birthday, 70% died before age 10, and only 5% lived past age 40. 

Taussig’s story is fascinating because she developed this incredible procedure that helped so many, yet she couldn’t perform it. You see, Taussig was not a surgeon. Her mentors discouraged her from taking that path, as they often did back then (and sometimes still do today). Nina Braunwald, who you’ll read about below, became the first female surgeon and the first woman to perform open heart surgery. 

Still, Taussig made a significant impact in cardiology and cardiac surgery. For example, the development of adult open-heart surgery procedures that began a decade later owes much to her groundbreaking work. Later in her career, Taussig earned numerous awards for her contributions, including the prestigious Lasker Award and the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson.

2) Marie Maynard Daly and Christine Seidman

When we think of advancing the field of cardiology, we must mention both Marie Maynard Daly and Christine Seidman.

Marie Maynard Daly became the first African American woman in the U.S. to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry. While at Rockefeller Institute of Medicine (now Rockefeller University) in New York City, she was the only black scientist, which she described as “one of the highlights of her career.” By the 1940s, she worked at Columbia University, where her research proved invaluable in demonstrating the relationship between cholesterol levels and heart attacks. While no one likes hearing their cholesterol is too high, this knowledge can prompt us to make life-saving changes, and we have Daly to thank for that.

Christine Seidman transformed the field of cardiovascular genetics by discovering the genetic cause of congenital heart malformations. Today, she continues to clarify genetic causes for heart disease and other disorders. She has written over 300 peer-reviewed articles, received funding from the NIH and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and won the American Heart Association’s highest scientific award: The Research Achievement Award, given annually in recognition of outstanding lifetime contributions to cardiovascular research and teaching. 

3) Nina Braunwald

Nina Braunwald had many firsts in her medical career. She was the first female cardiac surgeon, the first woman to perform open heart surgery, and the first woman to receive certification from the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. In Braunwald, we’ve got a double whammy: She made breakthroughs in both surgery and heart disease. 

In 1960, she designed a prosthetic mitral valve heart replacement. That same year, she successfully implanted the prosthesis in a 44-year-old woman with end-stage cardiac failure using a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, which she had also helped design. Braunwald later developed the Braunwald-Cutter valve. Surgeons implanted the valve successfully into thousands of patients throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

4) Mary Edwards Walker

Born in 1832, Mary Edwards Walker marks the first recognized woman surgeon and the second woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. She started a medical practice in New York in the 1850s with her husband, Albert Miller, whom she’d met in medical school. Unfortunately, it failed due to people’s negative perception of having a female surgeon as their doctor. 

Several years later, Walker became the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army. In 1865, she became the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for service in the Civil War. But in 1917, Congress changed the terms for the award, leading to their outrageous decision to revoke the honor to nearly a thousand people. Unfortunately, that included Walker. Despite Congress’ decision, she never returned the medal. Fifty-eight years after her death, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter officially reinstated Walker’s award, giving her the recognition she deserved. 

Walker was ahead of her time. How far ahead? Consider this: As of the late 1970s, only 2.7 percent of women were surgeons—and 63 percent of those women were in obstetrics and gynecology. According to the Association of American Colleges, even in 2019, only 22 percent of general surgeons were women, and far fewer were specialized surgeons. So, more than 150 years after Walker defied the odds by becoming a surgeon, far fewer women have joined her ranks than you might have expected.  

5) Ernestine Hambrick

Like many women featured in this list, Ernestine Hambrick boasts many firsts. Among them, she was the first woman to get board certification in colon and rectal surgery, the first woman on the American Society of Colon & Rectal Surgeons executive council, and the first woman to serve as Diplomate of the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery. 

After working for 25 years as a surgeon and inspiring generations like her, Hambrick left her practice to become the founder and leader of the STOP Colon/Rectal Cancer Foundation. She said, “We knew how to prevent colon cancer. But that knowledge was new knowledge, and it needed to be disseminated not only through the medical profession but also in the public domain.” 

6) Ann Tsukamoto

Ann Tsukamoto is a pioneer in stem cell research. The microbiologist and immunologist identified and isolated blood-forming stem cells, co-patenting the process in 1991. Isolation of stem cells proved crucial in cancer research because transplanting blood stem cells can help replace cells damaged by various types of cancer. Tsukamoto has since taken out 11 more patents in connection to her research. In addition, her work has led to a greater understanding of the circulatory systems of people with cancer, bringing the field one step closer to finding a cure. 

7) Mary-Claire King

Have you heard of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes? If so, you probably know they’re linked with a higher-than-average chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer. We have Mary-Claire King to thank for that discovery. When she pinpointed this connection in the mid-’90s, linking genes to cancer was a radical idea. Most theorized that breast cancer was viral, as with many other cancers. But breast cancer was common in some families, and King said, “I was absolutely convinced that cancer had to be genetic. I did not see any other way the relationship between a tumor and host could possibly persist.” 

Geneticists and oncologists took her findings and created screenings that let people know if they’re at an increased risk for cancer before it develops—and that could save their lives.  

To read about other incredible women in science and medicine, check out our previous blog, Meet Five Women Who Advanced Cancer Research and Treatment.

About MORE Health

MORE Health is a global digital health company known for giving individuals access to the best medical minds in the world when facing a serious illness or diagnosis. Recognized as a leader in cross-border telemedicine, MORE Health delivers virtual Expert Medical Opinions from world-leading specialists by pairing technology and world-class service. Offered as an employee benefit or on an individual self-pay basis, this service is available to groups of any size in the U.S. and abroad. Since 2013, MORE Health has helped patients on six continents and continues its mission to provide patient advocacy to clients and members worldwide—when they need it most.

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