It’s International Women’s Day! Of course, other websites are highlighting the accomplishments of iconic figures, but I’d like to promote the women who often go unmentioned. Here are five women who made an impact on the world we live in today:
Fe del Mundo (1911–2011)
Fe del Mundo was born in Manila among eight siblings—four of whom died in childhood or infancy. Those tragedies motivated del Mundo to become the doctor who could make a difference. Among her many incredible accomplishments: beginning college to study medicine at 15, becoming the first woman to be accepted into Harvard Medical School (the admissions department thought she was a man), protecting hundreds of children during World War II, occupied Manila, and setting up a leading pediatric hospital that promoted immunization programs, family planning, and breastfeeding. Until the very end of her long life, del Mundo did hospital rounds, even when she was in a wheelchair. Now that’s dedication.
Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958)
Rosalind Franklin led a short but movie-worthy life. The young British savant studied at Cambridge before doing a research stint in Paris. At age 31, she joined a team in London working to uncover the structure of DNA. Franklin and her student took a pivotal X-ray image that, along with their data, led to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the double helix.
Sadly, Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 38—with all of the credit for the team’s discoveries going to the three men of the group. To add insult to injury, one of the other scientists (remember Watson from “Watson and Crick”? Yeah. That guy) published a book about “their” discovery that included personal put-downs of the late lady scientist. However, the book did lead the science community to say, “Rosalind who?” and to eventually recognize her pivotal role in our understanding of genetics.
Jillian Mercado (1987-Present)
Though she’s only in her 30s, Jillian Mercado has made incredible strides in the modeling and activism community. A New York native with Dominican ancestry, Mercado was diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy as a child. Besides visible muscle weakness throughout her body, Mercado is also in a wheelchair—a situation which has been rarely represented within society’s beauty standards.
But Mercado has always had a love for the fashion industry, despite its Eurocentric beauty standards and ableist stigma. She vowed to change these attitudes from the inside out. She went to college at FIT, where she earned her degree in marketing. Following this, she even interned at Allure magazine. In reference to these choices, Mercado has said she wanted to “learn the politics behind fashion so I could hire people who looked like me.”
While Mercado studied at FIT, she served as a model for some of her fellow students’ projects. But in 2014 she saw her first professional modeling gig in a campaign for denim brand Diesel. Not long after, she was signed by IMG Models, appearing in widespread campaigns for the likes of Nordstrom, Target and Olay. Besides appearing on a New York City billboard, Mercado was also featured as a model for merchandise for Beyoncé’s Formation world tour. She was the first disabled cover star of Teen Vogue, and continues to use her impressive platform to push for more inclusivity in the industry.
Gertrude Elion (1918-1999)
Gertrude Elion was a brilliant woman of Jewish descent who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alongside George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black. The prize was awarded to them for their use of rational drug design over trial-and-error methods.
Elion played a significant role in the production of the drug azidothymidine (AZT), which was one of the first drugs used to treat HIV and AIDS. Other important contributions she made were to the creation of the leukemia treatment drug, Purinethol; the immunosuppressive agent used for organ transplants, Imuran; the malaria drug, Daraprim; and the viral herpes treatment, Zovirax. She was also a key mind working on the cancer treatment Nelarabine until her death on February 21, 1999.
She was inspired to get into biochemistry and pharmacology when she was 15 years old, after losing her beloved grandfather to cancer. Her tireless work from that moment on earned her prominent awards other than the Nobel Prize, including the Garvan-Olin Medal, the National Medal of Science, and the Lemelson-MIT Prize. Overcoming the great gender biases of the time, Elion’s work saved and enriched countless lives, and her passion for science encouraged many other women to follow in her footsteps.
Margaret Hamilton (1936-present)
Mankind successfully set foot on the moon in 1969. While history's spotlight remains trained on the pivotal men of NASA, there were several women who played an essential role in the Apollo 11 mission. Margaret Hamilton is one of those important women.
As the leader of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, contracted by NASA for the Apollo program, Hamilton helmed the development of the spacecraft’s guidance and navigation system. Her team developed the framework for software engineering, and she worked tirelessly in testing Apollo’s software.
Thanks to Hamilton’s rigorous testing of the software, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin successfully landed on the moon, despite a software override. In 2003, NASA honored Hamilton with a special award recognizing the value of her software innovations. In 2016, President Obama awarded Hamilton a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
Hamilton was, of course, preceded by women like Katherine Johnson and the other great women of Hidden Figures. Women’s contributions have been vital to NASA since its inception.