The role of women in biotechnology
Often hidden from view, women have played a major role in the development of biotechnology and medicine. Indeed, women have been at the cutting edge of biotechnology, including Rosalind Franklin who played a fundamental role in deciphering the structure of DNA; Esther Lederberg who discovered the lambda phage which is now a major tool for studying gene regulation and genetic recombination; Margaret Dayhoff who developed the field of bioinformatics; Janet Mertz who created the first piece of recombinant DNA; and Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier who helped pioneer CRISPR, a revolutionary technique for genome editing.
Here we provide a number of profiles of women who have been key pioneers in biotechnology. These profiles have been compiled as part of an ongoing project to highlight the many contributions women have made to biotechnology. This is a work in progress and we welcome suggestions for other women to be included.
Some of the leading women in biotechnology
Don't hesitate to contact us if you think of other women who have played an important role in the development of biotechnology and who are not here.
Brigitte Askonas (1923 - 2013)
Born: Vienna, Austria. Askonas co-developed one of the first systems for the cloning of antibody-forming B cells in vivo, some of the earliest monoclonal antibodies. She was also one of the first scientists to isolate and clone virus specific T lymphocytes, laying the foundation for defining different influenza sub-sets and improving vaccines. (Photo credit: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images B0007461).
Sally Davies (1949)
Born: Birmingham, United Kingdom. Sally Davies was named the sixth most powerful woman in the UK by Woman’s Hour, a BBC radio programme, in 2013. She is the first woman to hold the post of Chief Medical Officer for England. In 2006 she set up the National Institute for Health Research, a body that has revolutionised the approach to clinical and applied research in the UK. She is also at the forefront of spearheading efforts to combat antimicrobial resistance around the world. All this she has achieved in the midst of dealing with a likely variant of dyslexia, being widowed young and becoming a mother in her forties. Much of her career has been shaped by serendipity and her strong desire to make the world a better place.
Margaret Dayhoff (1925 - 1983)
Born: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Dayhoff is known as the founder of bioinformatics. This she did by pioneering the application of mathematics and computational techniques to the sequencing of proteins and nucleic acids and establishing the first publicly available database for research in the area. (Photo credit: Ruth E Dayhoff, National Library of Medicine).
Jennifer Doudna (1964)
Born: Washington DC, United States. Doudna first made her name uncovering the basic structure and function of the first ribozyme, a type of catalytic ribonucleic acid (RNA) that helps catalyse chemical reactions. This work helped lay the foundation for her later helping to pioneer CRISPR-Cas 9, a tool that has provided the means to edit genes on an unprecedented scale and at minimal cost. In addition to her scientific contributions to CRISPR, Doudna is known for spearheading the public debate to consider the ethical implications of using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit human embryos.
Rosalind Franklin (1920 - 1958)
Born: London, United Kingdom. Rosalind Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer whose work helped uncover the double-helix structure of DNA. (Photo credit: Vittorio Luzzati).
Carolyn Green (1965 - 2017)
Born: Pittsburgh, PA, USA. Carolyn E Green was a serial entrepreneur in the life sciences community and a leading voice for women in the sector. In her short life she managed to found and head up numerous companies and held many leadership and sales positions in the biopharmaceutical industry. Her crowning achievement was to be hired by Pfizer to head up its new strategic research and development investments initiative. This entailed working with the corporation’s venture fund to establish partnerships with early-stage companies. Green’s enduring patience and strong mentoring skills, together with her passion to develop products to help patients, set her apart from many others in the biotechnology world.
Beverly Griffin (1930 - 2016)
Born: Delhi, Louisiana. Griffin earned two doctorates in chemistry in an era when it was rare for women to pursue a scientific career. She is best known for her pioneering work on the molecular biology of two viruses that cause cancer - the polyomavirus and Epstein Barr Virus (EBV). From the 1980s she was devoted to understanding how in one setting EBV could cause glandular fever, a largely harmless disease, and yet in another Burkitt's Lymphoma, a major killer of children in Central Africa. She also spearheaded efforts to improve the diagnosis and treatment of the cancer and was a tireless campaigner for raising awareness of the plight of children with the disease in Africa. (Photo credit: Tomas Lindahl).
Esther Lederberg (1922 - 2006)
Born: Bronx, New York, United States. Esther Lederberg was a major pioneer of bacterial genetics. She discovered the lambda phage, a bacterial virus which is widely used as a tool to study gene regulation and genetic recombination. She also invented the replica plating technique, which is used to isolate and analyse bacterial mutants and track antibiotic resistance. (Photo credit: The Esther Lederberg Memorial Trust).
Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 - 2012)
Born: Turin, Italy. An Italian scientist, Rita Levi-Montalcini helped discover the chemical tools the body uses to direct cell growth and build nerves. This knowledge underpins current investigation into how these processes go wrong in diseases like dementia and cancer. (Photo credit: Bernard Becker Medical Library).
Janet Mertz (1949)
Born: The Bronx, New York, USA. Mertz was pivotal to the discovery of the first enzyme for easily joining together DNA from different species and designing the protocol that underpinned the development of the first recombinant DNA cloned in bacteria. Her work not only helped lay the foundation for the development of genetic engineering, but also spurred on the establishment of the first safety guidelines for laboratories involved in genetic manipulation. She has also made key contributions to our understanding about how the human tumour viruses SV40, hepatitis B virus, and Epstein-Barr virus regulate expression of their genes and identified roles oestrogen-related receptors play in breast cancer and responses to therapies. (Photo credit: Janet Mertz).
Christiane Nusslein-Volhard (1942)
Born: Magdeburg, Germany. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard won the Nobel Prize in 1995, the sixth woman to do so. She was awarded the Prize on the basis of her groundbreaking research that showed how genes regulate the early development of fruit fly embryos. Her discoveries helped create the new discipline of developmental genetics and laid the foundation for understanding genetic defects in human embryos.
Padmanee Sharma (1970)
Born: Georgetown, Guyana. Padmanee Sharma is a leading figure in oncology, specialising in renal, bladder and prostate cancer. Her prime focus is to understand the mechanisms and pathways within the immune system responsible for tumour rejection. Since 2005 she has been a principal investigator for several clinical trials launched to improve the efficacy of cancer immunotherapies. Driven by the desperation of her cancer patients, much of Sharma’s high-flying career is down to the strong determination she developed to overcome the poverty and hardships she faced as the child of Indo-Guyanese immigrants who settled in New York when she was 10 years old.
Rosemary Versteegen (1948)
Born: Glasgow, Scotland. Rosemary J Versteegen worked for over twenty years with Life Technologies Inc, which in the 1990s was one of largest suppliers of culture cell products and other scientific reagents to the biotechnology industry. She was pivotal to the company’s success in winning FDA approval for the first diagnostic test using synthetic nucleic acid probes for detecting infection with the human papillomavirus, one of the most common causes of cervical cancer. In addition, Versteegen is one of the co-founders and the Chief Executive Officer of the International Serum Industry Association, an organisation that works to promote standards of excellence and ethics in the animal serum and animal derived products industry.
Francoise Barre-Sinoussi (1947)
Born: Paris, France. Barre-Sinoussi shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for helping to identify the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as the cause of AIDS in 1983. Over the years she has made substantial contributions to understanding the role of innate immune defences in the host in controlling HIV/AIDS and how HIV is transmitted between the mother and child. She has also studied the characteristics that allow some HIV-positive individuals gain resistance to HIV without antiretrioviral drugs. (Photo credit: Karolinska Institute, Press conference, 2008).
Elizabeth Blackburn (1948)
Born: Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Blackburn is a molecular biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009. She is best known for having discovered a particular repetative sequence of DNA on the telomere, a particular region found at the end of a chromosome that prevents the chromosome ends from fraying and sticking to each other. She also helped identify telomerase, an enzyme that helps replenish telomeres which get shorter every time a cell divides. Such shortening is associated with aging and cancer. (Photo credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation).
Gertrude Elion (1918 - 1999)
Born: New York City, United States. Elion shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her contributions to the development of a multitude of new drugs. This included drugs for herpes, leukemia, malaria, gout, immune disorders, and AIDS, and immune suppressants to overcome rejection of donated organs in transplant surgery. Her work earned 45 patents. (Photo credit: Wellcome Images).
Carol Greider (1961)
Born: San Diego, California, United States. Greider shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for helping to elucidate the structure of telomeres, a particular region found at the end of a chromosome that prevents the chromosome ends from fraying and sticking to each other, and to identify telomerase, an enzyme that helps replenish telomeres which get shorter every time a cell divides. Such shortening is associated with aging and cancer. She also collaborated in the development of the first telomerase knockout mouse which helped demonstrate how premature aging is linked to increasingly short telomeres. (Photo credit: Keith Weller).
Ingeborg Hochmair-Desoyer (1953)
Born: Vienna, Austria. Hochmair-Desoyer is an electrical engineer who helped create the world's first micro-electric multi-channel cochlear implant. Developed in 1977 the implant enables the user to not only hear sounds but also to understand speech. Since 2000 she has co-founded a number of medical device companies working to help with hearing loss. In 2013 she was awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. (Photo credit: Ingeborg J Hochmair-Desoyer).
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 - 1994)
Born: Cairo, Egypt. Dorothy Hodgkin, was a British biochemist who developed protein crystallography and X-ray crystallography which was used to confirm the structure of penicillin, for which she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964. (Photo credit: Peter Lofts Photography, National Portrait Gallery, London Peter Lofts Photography, National Portrait Gallery, London ).
Mary-Claire King (1946)
Born: Illinois, United States. King is a human geneticist who studies the interplay between genetics and the environment on human disease. She is best known for having identified BRCA1, a single gene responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers. Her technique for identifying the BRCA1 gene is now used for studying many other diseases. She was also responsible for the development of a technique, using mitrochondial DNA and human leukocyte antigen, for genetically identifying the remains of missing people. (Photo credit: Mary-Claire King).
Born: United States. A key pioneer in the development of antibody engineering techniques, Morrison helped develop some of the first chimeric monoclonal antibodies. This work paved the way to the creation of safer and more effective monoclonal antibody drugs. (Photo credit: Sherie Morrison).
May-Britt Moser (1963)
Born: Fosnavag, Norway. Moser shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for helping to discover cells located in the centre of the brain that are important for determining spacial position. Her work has helped scientists gain new understanding into the cognitive processes and spacial deficits linked to neurological conditions like Alzheimer's disease. (Photo credit: NBC News).
Evelyn Witkin (1921)
Born: New York City, United States. Witkin is an American geneticist who is best known for her work on DNA mutagenesis and DNA repair. She helped elucidate the first co-ordinated stress response. This she did studying the response of bacteria to UV radiation. Witkins was one of the first few women to be elected to the US National Academy of Sciences, in 1977 and in 2002 was awarded the National Medal of Science. (Photo credit: YouTube).
Rosalyn Yalow (1921 - 2011)
Born: New York City, United States. The second American woman to ever be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, Yalow is best known for having co-developed a diagnostic technique, known as a radioimmunoassay, for measuring tiny quantities of various biological samples in blood and other bodily fluids. The test's primary detection mechanism is an antibody combined with a radioisotope. First devised for determining insulin levels in diabetes patients, the technique is now used for hundreds of other substances previously difficult to detect because they were too small. Among the substances it can quantify are hormones, vitamins, enzymes. It is also used to measure the effectiveness of dose levels of antibiotics and other drugs. (Photo credit: US Information Agency).
Tu Youyou (1930)
Born: Zhejiang, China. Tu Youyou is a Chinese chemist who discovered artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, used to treat malaria. YouYou received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with William Campbell and Satoshi Omura. Youyou is the first Chinese Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine and the first female citizen of the People's Republic of China to receive a Nobel Prize in any category. (Photo credit: Bengt Nyman).
Women in biotechnology: timeline of key events
|3 Feb 1821||Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, Gloucestershire, England||Blackwell|
|7 Nov 1867||Marie Curie, nee Sklodowska, born in Warsaw, Russian Empire (now Poland)||Curie||Warsaw|
|5 Apr 1901||Hattie Elizabeth Alexander was born in New York City, USA||Alexander||Columbia University|
|16 Jun 1902||Barbara McClintock was born in Hartford CT, USA||McClintock||University of Missouri|
|22 Apr 1909||Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy||Levi-Montalcini||Washington University|
|10 May 1910||Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin was born in Cairo, Egypt||Hodgkin||Cairo, Egypt|
|31 May 1910||Elizabeth Blackwell died||Blackwell|
|19 Sep 1915||Elizabeth Stern Shankman born in Cobalt, Ontario, Canada||Stern||University of California at Los Angeles|
|23 Sep 1917||Asima Chatterjee was born in Bengal, India||Chatterjee||University of Calcutta|
|23 Jan 1918||Gertrude B Elion was born in New York NY, USA||Elion||Wellcome Research Laboratories|
|22 Mar 1920||Katsuko Saruhashi was born in Tokyo, Japan||Saruhashi|
|25 Jul 1920||Rosalind E Franklin was born in London, United Kingdom||Franklin||Kings College London|
|9 Mar 1921||Evelyn Witkin was born in New York City, USA||Witkin||New York City|
|19 Jul 1921||Rosalyn Yalow was born in New York, USA||Yalow||Veterans Administration Hospital|
|18 Dec 1922||Esther Lederberg was born in Bronx, New York, USA||Lederberg||Wisconsin University|
|1 Apr 1923||Brigitte Askonas was born in Vienna, Austria||Askonas||Vienna|
|11 Mar 1925||Margaret Dayhoff was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA||Dayhoff||Philadelphia|
|23 Jan 1930||Beverly Griffin was born in Delhi, Louisiana, USA||Griffin||Imperial College|
|30 Dec 1930||Tu Youyou was born in Zhejiang, China||Youyou||Zhejiang|
|4 Jul 1934||Marie Curie died||Curie||University of Paris, Radium Institute|
|27 Feb 1946||Mary-Claire King was born in Illinois, USA||King||Illinois|
|30 Jul 1947||Francoise Barré-Sinoussi born in Paris, France||Barre-Sinoussi||Pasteur Institute|
|24 Nov 1949||Sally Davies born||Davies|
|1952||First observation of the modification of viruses by bacteria||Luria, Human||University of Illinois|
|January 1952||X-ray diffraction image, produced by Rosalind Franklin, shows DNA to have regularly repeating helical structure||Franklin||Kings College London|
|1 Jan 1953||Ingeborg Hochmair-Desoyer was born in Vienna, Austria||Hochmair-Desoyer||Vienna, Austria|
|April 1953||Franklin's x-ray image of DNA published||Franklin||Kings College London|
|17 Mar 1956||Irène Joliot-Curie died||Curie|
|26 Oct 1957||Gerty Theresa Cori died||G Cori||Washington University in St Louis|
|16 Apr 1958||Rosalind E Franklin died||Franklin||Kings College London|
|15 Apr 1961||Carol W Greider was born in San Diego CA, USA||Greider||Johns Hopkins University|
|16 Dec 1961||First successful direct incorporation of functional DNA in human cell||Kraus||University of Tennessee|
|23 Jan 1962||Concept of restriction and modification enzymes born||Arber, Dussoix||University of Geneva|
|1965||First comprehensive protein sequence and structure computer data published as Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure||Dayhoff, Eeek, Ledley||National Biomedical Research Foundation, Georgetown University|
|24 Jun 1968||Hattie Elizabeth Alexander died||Alexander||Columbia University|
|1970 - 1972||Means developed for cloning B cells that produce single antibodies with known specificity||Askonas, Williamson, Wright||National Institute for Medical Research|
|1971||First plasmid bacterial cloning vector constructed||Berg, Mertz, Jackson||Stanford University|
|June 1971||First time potential biohazards of recombinant DNA raised||Mertz, Berg, Pollack||Stanford University|
|December 1971||First experiments published demonstrating the use of restriction enzymes to cut DNA||Danna, Nathans||Johns Hopkins University|
|1972||Beverly Griffin appointed head of nuclear acids research at Imperial Cancer Research Fund||Griffin||Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories|
|November 1972||First easy-to-use technique published for constructing recombinant DNA.||Berg, Mertz||Stanford University Medical School|
|1980 - 1990||Existence of the blood stem cell contested||Dexter, Lord, Weissmann, Morrison|
|1980||Polyoma virus DNA sequenced||Griffin, Soeda, Arrand, Walsh||Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories|
|18 Aug 1980||Elizabeth Stern Shankman died||Shankman||University of California at Los Angeles|
|1980||Largest nucleic acid sequence database in the world made available free over telephone network||Dayhoff||National Biomedical Research Foundation, Georgetown University|
|5 Feb 1983||Margaret Dayhoff died in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA||Dayhoff||Silver Spring, Maryland|
|1984||First chimeric monoclonal antibodies developed, laying foundation for safer and more effective monoclonal antibody therapeutics||Neuberger, Rabbitts, Morrison, Oi, Herzenberg, Boulianne, Schulman, Hozumi||Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Stanford Univerity Medical School|
|1988||Beverly Griffin appointed first woman professor at Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital||Griffin||Imperial College|
|2 Sep 1992||Barbara McClintock died||McClintock||University of Missouri|
|4 Jul 1993||Gladys Lounsbury Hobby died||Hobby||Columbia University, Pfizer|
|29 Jul 1994||Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin died||Hodgkin||Oxford University|
|1996||First reports that blood stem cell might be able to give rise to cells other than those of the blood system||Blau, Lagasse, Lemischka, Morrison, Thiese, Krause, Gussoni, Bjornson|
|21 Feb 1999||Gertrude B Elion died||Elion||Wellcome Research Laboratories|
|1 Jan 2000||Polyoma virus shown to be potential tool for delivering gene therapy||Krauzewicz, Stokrova, Jenkins, Elliott, Higgns, Griffin||Imperial College, Czech Academy of Sciences, University of Wales|
|11 Nov 2006||Esther Lederberg died||Lederberg||Wisconsin University|
|22 Nov 2006||Asima Chatterjee, an Indian organic chemist, died||Chatterjee||University of Calcutta|
|29 Sep 2007||Katsuko Saruhashi died||Saruhashi|
|30 May 2011||Rosalyn Yalow died||Yalow||Veterans Administration Hospital|
|May 2012||First patent application submitted for CRISPR-Cas 9 technology||Doudna, Charpentier||University of California Berkeley, University of Vienna|
|August 2012||A group of scientists based at Howard Hughes Medical Institute published a radically new gene editing method that harnessed the CRISPR-Cas9 system||Jinek, Chylinski, Fonfara, Hauer, Doudna, Charpentier||University of California Berkeley|
|30 Dec 2012||Rita Levi-Montalcini died||Levi-Montalcini||Institute of Cell Biology of the CNR|
|9 Jan 2013||Brigitte Askonas died in London, United Kingdom||Askonas||London, United Kingdom|
|18 Sep 2015||UK scientists sought license to genetically modify human embryos to study the role played by genes in the first few days of human fertilisation||Naikan||Crick Institute|
|5 Oct 2015||Tu Youyou awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of artemisinin, a treatment for malaria||Youyou|
|13 Jun 2016||Beverly Griffin died||Griffin||Imperial College|