Women in Endocrinology: A 20th Century Retrospective  

Endocrinology is a field with strong female representation today, with women making up 70% of all endocrinologists in training (Pelley et al., 2016). However, for much of the 20th century, endocrinology, like most areas of medicine, was male dominated and exclusionary toward women seeking to enter the discipline.

Among the few women who successfully broke into the field, there are a few names that are often highlighted. Rosalyn Yalow, PhD, the first woman to serve as Endocrine Society President, continues to have a far-reaching impact on medicine. Her development of the radioimmunoassay technique to monitor and identify hormones won her the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize (Rosalyn Sussman Yalow).

However, many others, some lesser acknowledged, paved the way to create a field where women can thrive.  

Gerty Cori (1896–1957) 

In 1947, Gerty Cori became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for her role in the discovery of glycogen metabolism.  

Cori was born in 1896 in Prague, a time when women were systemically marginalized in science. Despite the absence of Latin, math, physics, or chemistry education in girls’ schools at the time, she passed the KarlFerdinands-Universität entrance exam and was admitted to the university in 1914.   

Because of the poor conditions and rising antisemitism in post-war Europe, Cori and her husband Carl emigrated to the United States in 1922. In the U.S., Cori experienced employment inequality, working 13 years at the Washington University School of Medicine before she attained the same rank of professor as her husband. Gender discrimination and rules regarding nepotism fueled her strength and resolve.  

In 1947, Gerty and Carl Cori were jointly awarded the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine, ‘for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen’ – the Cori cycle. Although it’s the Cori cycle that bears their name, one of their subsequent achievements had an even greater impact. After several years of testing, the Coris identified the enzyme that initiates decomposition into glucose. They then reversed that enzymatic decomposition process to create glycogen in a test tube, pioneering a method of doing biochemical research in a controlled environment outside of living cells. 

The unforgotten moments of my life are those rare ones which come after years of plodding work, when the veil over nature’s secret seems suddenly to lift, and when what was dark and chaotic appears in a clear and beautiful light and pattern.

Gerty Cori

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994) 

Dorothy C. Hodgkin, OM, FRS, HonFRSC, began her research career in Britain in the 1930s. Her work paved the way for the development of technology that deciphered the structure of insulin. She later developed new insulins and became an advocate for the importance of insulin to human health. Like Yalow, her work won a Nobel Prize in 1969, making her the only British woman to win to this day. It is less known that Hodgkin was disabled in a period where few therapies and accommodations existed. Rheumatoid arthritis had a debilitating impact on her daily life. She recalled,  “I found I had great difficulty and pain in getting up and dressing. Every joint in my body seemed to be affected.”  

Unable to make full use of her hands, she utilized levers and other makeshift mechanisms to complete her prolific body of x-ray lab work. (Celebrating scientists with disabilities). Other career achievements include the discovery of the structure of cholesterol, vitamin B12, and penicillin which led to many important, lifesaving developments in medicine (Phelan, 2021). Hodgkin’s resilience and determination despite debilitating chronic pain and cultural hostility to women in medicine make her a standout figure in endocrinology’s history.  

Mei-Fang Cheng (1938-2022) 

Later in the Twentieth Century, Mei-Fang Cheng, PhD, made notable strides in physiology, animal behavior, and neuroendocrinology. Born in Taiwan, Cheng faced obstacles when she moved to the United States for her undergraduate studies both as a woman pursuing a career in science and as an immigrant.   

Her early research on gonadectomy and hormone replacement identified connections between ovarian steroids and reproductive behavior. Though she was exceling professionally, emotionally, she suffered from anxiety partially due to experiencing public condescension and disrespect from some colleagues. Cheng recalled,  “I told myself that even though there may have been elements of race or gender at play, I carried some responsibility for how I was treated. I learned to be assertive and to aggressively pursue my research. I was not to be deterred or shamed by challenges from important figures in the field. Changes are slow and incremental, though. Some scars last for years, and there are people who hold on to their perceptions (Cheng, Mei-fang, rutgers women in science).”  

This sentiment is reflected in her achievements. Cheng was awarded a Research Development Career Award, Johnson and Johnson Discovery Award, Hoechst Celanese Innovative Research Award, Rutgers Board of Trustee Award for Excellence in Research, among others. Her later work highlighted the existence of an active neurogenesis in the hypothalamus of doves in response to lesions. Importantly, she discovered the contribution of the new neurons to the behavioral recovery after lesions. In addition to serving as full professor at Rutgers University starting 1979, Cheng served as acting director and then director of the Institute of Animal Behavior from 1989 to 1994 (In memoriam: Mei-Fang Cheng, Phd: Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology (SBN)).  

M. Joycelyn Elders, MD 

Joycelyn Elders, MD, has led a life of many firsts: first member of her family to attend college, first person in the state of Arkansas to become board-certified in pediatric endocrinology, and first Black Surgeon General of the United States. 

Born to poor farming parents in 1933, Joycelyn Elders grew up in a rural, segregated, poverty-stricken pocket of Arkansas. After graduating from high school at the age of 15, she earned a scholarship to the all-black liberal arts Philander Smith College in Little Rock.  

While attending Philander Smith College, Elders heard Edith Irby Jones, the first African American to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School, speak. Elders — who had not even met a doctor until she was 16 years old — decided that becoming a physician was possible, and she wanted to be like Jones.  

After graduating from Philander in 1952, Elders joined the army, affording her the opportunity to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School on the GI Bill four years later, and eventually become chief resident in charge of the all-white, all-male residents and interns. She became an assistant professor of pediatrics at the university in 1971, and full professor in 1976 (NIH, 2015). 

In 1987 Elders was appointed to the office of Director of Public Health of Arkansas, where she led many initiatives to reduce the level of teen pregnancy, increase early childhood screenings and immunization, and expand HIV testing and counseling, breast cancer screenings, and care for elderly and terminally ill patients (Britannica, 2022). In 1993, Elders was appointed the 15th Surgeon General of the United States by President Bill Clinton. Elders served as Surgeon General for 15 months, and in 1995 returned to the University of Arkansas as a faculty researcher and professor of pediatric endocrinology at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (Harvard Medical School, 2020). 

Neena Schwartz, PhD (1926 – 2018)

Neena Schwartz, PhD, is considered one of the most influential contributors to reproductive endocrinology. However, for much of her career, she was the only woman in the room. 

  “I was the only woman getting my PhD in the department of physiology at Northwestern. At my first job at the University of Illinois, the chairman of the department asked me to pour the tea. ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘but maybe someone else can pour it next time.’ Nobody ever asked me again (Awis mourns passing of Dr. Neena B. Schwartz, founder 2021).” 

Schwartz played a key role in our current understanding of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis and its control. Her early studies identified the cyclical nature of gonadotropin secretion upon which informs the current understanding of the HPA Axis. She also held an interest in differential regulation of pituitary FSH and LH secretion. Her work detailed a nonsteroidal feedback factor from the ovary involved in controlling the secondary FSH surge.  

She served as director for Reproductive Science and professor emerita of Biological Sciences at Northwestern University. She founded Northwestern’s Program for Reproductive Research (currently The Center for Reproductive Science), which became a leading training center for investigators in reproductive endocrinology. Enthusiastic to bring more women to science and medicine, she was a founding member of the Association for Women in Science and co-founded Women in Endocrinology, within the Endocrine Society.

Schwartz was elected president of both the Endocrine Society and the Society for the Study of Reproduction (Neena B. Schwartz, Phd). In her autobiography, A Lab of My Own, she came out as a lesbian which she felt compelled to disguise for most of her career due to prevailing social attitudes. In coming out, she hoped to, “provide young gay scientists or other professionals with a lesson of possibilities for success and happiness without such splits in their lives (Neena Schwartz – Alchetron, the Free Social Encyclopedia 2022).” 

Read a memoriam of Schwartz by Teresa K. Woodruff, PhD, and Kelly E. Mayo, PhD, that appeared in Endocrine News in April 2018.

The legacy of scientific, medical, and cultural advancement that these women strove to achieve echoes through the generations. Today, the Endocrine Society celebrates the importance of diverse voices and perspectives in the scientific and medical community through programs such as FLARE and ExCEL, which provide leadership training, mentoring, and awards for basic scientists and clinicians from underrepresented minority communities. 

Progress has been made since the days when Schwartz was the only woman in the room and Elders couldn’t even imagine that being a doctor was a possibility, but there is still much further to go.  The next generation of remarkable women is in the labs and clinics, universities and hospitals night now, expanding the boundaries of medical science and practice. 

Wokas is the senior manager, Member Engagement & Experience, Endocrine Society. Barrett is specialist, Member Engagement & Recognition, Endocrine Society.

References 

Awis mourns passing of dr. Neena B. Schwartz, founder. AWIS. (2021, October 8). Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://awis.org/awis-mourns-passing-dr-neena-b-schwartz-founder/  

Celebrating scientists with disabilities. Royal Society. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/diversity-in-science/scientists-with-disabilities/  

Cheng, Mei-fang | rutgers women in science. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://wisem.rutgers.edu/cheng-mei-fang  

In memoriam: Mei-Fang Cheng, Phd: Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology (SBN). Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://sbn.org/news/news/in-memoriam-mei-fang-cheng.aspx  

Neena B. Schwartz, Phd. AWIS. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://awis.org/historical-women/neena-schwartz/  

Neena Schwartz – Alchetron, the Free Social Encyclopedia. Alchetron.com. (2022, November 26). Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://alchetron.com/Neena-Schwartz  

Pelley, E., Danoff, A., Cooper, D. S., & Becker, C. (2016). Female physicians and the future of endocrinology. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 101(1), 16–22. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2015-3436  

Phelan, L. (2021, July 8). Dorothy Hodgkin. The Biophysical Society. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://www.biophysics.org/profiles/dorothy-hodgkin  

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow. American Chemical Society. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://www.acs.org/education/whatischemistry/women-scientists/rosalyn-sussman-yalow.html  

Nobel Prize Outreach AB. (2023). The nobel prize in physiology or medicine 1947. NobelPrize.org. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1947/cori-gt/biographical/ 

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2022). Joycelyn elders. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Joycelyn-Elders  

Harvard Medical School. (2020). M. Joycelyn Elders, MD (first African American and the second woman to become U.S. Surgeon General). M. Joycelyn Elders, MD (First African American and the Second Woman to Become U.S. Surgeon General) | Perspectives Of Change. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://perspectivesofchange.hms.harvard.edu/node/193  

National Institutes of Health. (2015, June 3). Changing the face of medicine | m. joycelynelders. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_98.html  

The Nobel Prize Organization. (n.d.). The nobel prize: Women who changed science: Gerty Cori. The official website of the Nobel Prize – NobelPrize.org. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/gerty-cori  

Popovic-Brkic, V. (2019). Ese News. 

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