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Exploring the History of Women in Science

By Eddy Ball
April 2010

Vivian Pinn, M.D.
As director of ORWH, Pinn has been proactive in advocating for women's health and for their advancement in scientific and administrative fields at NIH and elsewhere. (Photo courtesy of NIH)

Barbara Alving, M.D.
Alving was appointed director of NCRR by former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, M.D., in 2007. In her remarks, Pinn credited Zerhouni for his support of women at NIH and said that NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., has demonstrated his support for ongoing initiatives. (Photo courtesy of NIH)

The NIH Women's History Month Celebration featured two prominent NIH women scientists addressing the topic of "Writing Women into the History of Science" on March 17. Elizabeth Fee, Ph.D., and Vivian Pinn, M.D., were the keynote speakers at the event, which was webcast from Wilson Hall on the NIH Campus in Bethesda and archived online (see video link below).

Fee is the chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), and Pinn is director of the Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH) and NIH associate director for Research on Women's Health.

Reflections on the early days

In her talk, Fee reviewed the contributions of women to the development of science and looked at efforts to inscribe them back into the history they were instrumental in shaping. She launched her presentation with an account of her own experience when she told her parents she wanted to study biochemistry at Cambridge.

Her parents, Fee said, were not supportive initially, telling her instead to study cooking and home economics to become a better wife and mother. Their attitude was a hangover of some of the earlier prejudices - "Women were said to have small brains but nimble fingers" - that kept women in the role of assistants and denied them recognition for their significant contributions to scientific advances.

Fee traced that theme through the 19th and 20th centuries. Women advanced during the times of war, she explained, only to lose ground afterwards, until breakthroughs were made possible by the women's rights movement. It was then, she noted, that historians began the gradual process of "changing the face of science and celebrating the contributions of women in science" - the theme of a new multimedia NLM exhibit Exit NIEHS (

Focus on women at NIH

Following Fee's overview, Pinn brought the program home for NIH women, by recalling the environment at NIH when she began her duties in ORWH in 1991 and discussing recent and current initiatives to improve women's experiences in the workplace. She pointed to some of the female standard bearers of the past 20 years, such as Bernadine Healy, M.D. Exit NIEHS (, the only woman to head NIH, and Ruth Kirschstein, M.D. Exit NIEHS (, the first director of an institute or center (IC) at NIH.

Pinn surveyed women's accomplishments in several NIH initiatives and publications with an impressive catalogue of women in top leadership positions, including most recently the appointment of Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., as NIEHS/NTP director. "What a change from when I came and there was one institute director and one center director," Pinn observed.

In her closing remarks, National Center for Research Resources Director Barbara Alving, M.D., approached the topic in terms of workplace diversity. Alving acknowledged the continuing gap between women and men in terms of retention and career advancement despite important gains in terms of the percentage of women in training for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as she commented on the leading role of NIH in working toward greater equality.

Looking toward the future, Alvin emphasized the importance of inclusion. "We can [all] be minorities in so many different ways," she said, pointing to demographic trends and projections. Alving also underscored the continuing need for expanded childcare services at NIH, which she said benefits men as fathers, as well as women as mothers.

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