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Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

A tribute to my recent acceptance to medical school, this month’s Famous Names in Public Health series post centers around women’s achievements in medicine. This notable figure was the first woman to earn a medical doctorate degree in the United States. Her name is Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.

Dr. Blackwell was born in 1821 in Bristol, England. Her family immigrated to America in 1832 and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. Here, her father and family became advocates for the abolition of slavery and for the establishment of women’s rights. After her father passed away in 1838, her mother, sisters and herself became teachers as a means to support themselves and their family. According to Changing the Face of Medicine, Dr.Blackwell first turned to medicine because “a close friend who was dying suggested she would have been spared her worst suffering if her physician had been a woman.”

Dr. Blackwell consulted her family’s physician friends for advice and studied medicine under the guidance of 2 of these physicians for 1 year before applying to multiple medical schools on the east coast. Many schools at that time would not even entertain her application because their programs were not available to women. One school however did consider the idea- Geneva Medical College. Apparently, the faculty allowed the students (who were, of course, all male) vote on her admission because they thought it would never go through. However, the student body jokingly voted to grant her admission to the school. (It’s pretty shocking how a practical joke ultimately led to a change in history!) She graduated from the program in 1849 with her MD degree. She was the first in her class, gaining respect from faculty and classmates alike.

From there, Dr.Blackwell practiced medicine in London and Paris until 1851. When she returned to New York to practice medicine, she struggled with discrimination and had difficulty finding work. Neither hospitals were willing to hire her, nor patients willing to see her. Even a women’s department was unwilling to hire her as a practicing female physician. As a result, Dr. Blackwell opened her own small clinic in the city to treat women. In 1857, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, her sister; Dr. Emily Blackwell, Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. In 1859 she became the first woman to have her name entered in the British General Medical Council’s register. Continuing this success, her New York infirmary opened a medical college for women while under her sister’s charge in 1867. Dr.Blackwell continued to practice medicine, and in 1875, she became the professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women.

Throughout her career, Dr. Blackwell campaigned for the opportunity for women to practice medicine and for their acceptance in the field. She founded the National Health Society in 1871. Accorting to The Independent, “Blackwell had set up a private practice in London in 1870, established the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874 and finally won the right for women to undertake medical degrees in Britain during 1876 following years of campaigning.” She also released numerous pamphlets, brochures and books campaigning for women in medicine and documenting her experience. He publications include Medicine as a Profession For Women in 1860, Address on the Medical Education of Women in 1864, and Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, published in 1895.






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Dr. Souhel Najjar

Neurology is the study of the nervous system, most notably the brain. While the field has been around as far back as 2000BC, our understanding of the brain is continuing to evolve. This month’s notable figure is one among many historical members of this field of study. Dr. Souhel Najjar is a neurologist working on topics related to epilepsy, neuroinflammation-related neuropsychiatric disorders and autoimmune disorders of central nervous system. Examples of some of these conditions include anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis , temporal lobe epilepsy, and the implication of neuro-inflammation in diseases such as schizophrenia. A quick search on Google Scholar brings up pages and pages of articles listing him as one of the authors.

Dr.Najjar has an extensive educational foundation. He studied medicine at Demascus Medical School in Syria. Following this, he completed his graduate medical education via residencies in both in pathology and neurology at Albany Medical College. He also completed a fellowship in neuropathology, in addition to another fellowship in epilepsy and clinical neurophysiology at the NYU School of Medicine and NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases.

During his career, he has had multiple director positions throughout New York City. He has acted as the Director of Neurosciences and Director of Stroke at Staten Island University Hospital beginning in 2006. He has also been the Director of Epilepsy Quality Assurance and Associate Professor of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine. Dr. Najjar is currently the Chair of Neurology at Lenox Hill Hospital and Staten Island University Hospital and is Chair and Professor of Neurology at the Hofstra North Shore School of Medicine.

Outside of his pioneering research, he is well known for his work on autoimmune encephalitis diseases, which have only become recognized as their own disease family after their discovery in the early 2000s. In fact, journalist Susannah Cahalan outlined her own experience with the disease, Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis, in her book titled “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.” A discussion between Dr.Najjar and her can be viewed at a Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance Awareness event here. Dr.Najjar continues to act as an advocate and physician for patients within the growing field of autoimmune encephalitis and other neuro-inflammation diseases.

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Dr. Harvey Cushing

This month, for the third edition of “Famous Names in Public Health!” I will focus on the medical side of healthcare by recognizing a figure who contributed significantly to the fields of neurosurgery and epidemiology, Dr.Harvey Cushing.

Dr. Cushing graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1895 and he continued his medical training in surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. During the time of his training, neuroscience was a rapidly growing field of medicine making numerous advances and discoveries. Neurosurgery claimed Dr. Cushing’s professional interest as he drifted from general surgery into peripheral-nerve surgery. After this, he became more and more focused on the brain, ultimately making neurosurgery his focus for his career. In 1913, Dr. Cushing accepted a position as the surgeon in chief at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital that was associated with Harvard. He continued to practice neurosurgery even in this position. According to the article “Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery,” Dr. Cushing’s major interest was cerebral tumors, leading him to study and treat more than 2,000 verified tumors. These studies are documented within 5 books published between 1912 and 1938.

Throughout his years of practice, he developed the Cushing Brain Tumor registry in 1902. It is an archive “of over 2,200 case studies which includes human whole brain specimens, tumor specimens, microscopic slides, notes, journal excerpts and over 15,000 photographic negatives dating from the late 1800’s to 1936. ” What makes this collection even more unique is that Cushing was an avid bibliophile, so he meticulously recorded and documented each patient story, including the stories of the patients of the collected specimens. Today, this provides a unique history of neurosurgery’s progression throughout his career.

Most notably, Dr. Cushing made numerous contributions to science and medicine, including the control of bleeding with silver clips, the development of electro-surgery, the development of technical methods for performing surgical operations, an increased understanding of intracranial pressure, the development of the pathological classification of glioma, and the description of pituitary basophilia (also known as Cushing Syndrome). Through this work on the pituitary gland, Cushing is also considered to be one of the founders of endocrinology. Even more of his pioneering research and medical practice can be found here.

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Dr.Luc Montagnier

This month’s notable figure in public health does not stand alone in his crowning achievement- the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS. As a result, the other members that contributed to the discovery of the link between HIV and AIDS will also be given a nod.

Luc Montagnier was born in France in 1932 where he grew up amidst World War II and the German occupation of the country of France. He was inspired to pursue virology after learning of the discovery of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and the subsequent research conducted on the virus. His early research in virology involved hand foot and mouth disease, which proved that viral double-stranded RNA can replicate in a similar fashion to DNA. His research then turned to oncogenic viruses, or viruses that cause cancers. He discovered that the genetic material contained within the virus is enough to have a cancerous effect. His research specifically focused on oncogenic viruses that contained RNA instead of DNA. These viruses became known as retroviruses. Dr. Montagnier’s lab began searching for retroviruses in human cancer patients.

In 1982, Dr. Montagnier became involved in HIV research in France due to the growing suspicion that the disease may be caused by a virus. Multiple virologists around the world were working to determine the composition of the HIV infectious agent. In early 1983, his lab discovered Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus (LAV), named for the virus isolated from patients displaying swollen lymph nodes in early stages of AIDS. The growth of the lymph cells in cultures utilized the technique discovered and developed by Dr. Robert Gallo. His lab’s discovery allowed researchers to grow T-cells and study the viruses that affect them, thus making LAV research possible. Dr. Montagnier, aided by the assistance of Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Jean-Claude Chermann who both had previous research and experience with retroviruses, grew and examined LAV cells in cultures. These gentlemen recorded the RT activity in the culture and conducted valuable research in the growth and development of the samples of the new virus. In September 1983, in the midst of the AIDS outbreak, Dr.Montagnier made a presentation of his team’s scientific findings and data that linked the newly determined LAV to the disease in a causal manner. LAV would later become known at HIV. At the time this announcement was controversial because the viral data collected by Dr.Montagnier classified the virus in a different family from HTLV, the only known retrovirus of the time. However, closely followed research performed by Dr. Gallo and Dr.Jay Levy confirmed and extended the findings that the HIV virus was not part of the HTLV family. The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Dr. Montagnier and Dr.Barré-Sinoussi for the discovery of HIV and their pioneering work in the field of virology. (There has been a controversial debate surrounding the members of the award as Dr.Gallo was notably absent from the recognition despite the use of his techniques and previous research in the discovery and testing of HIV)

Today, thanks to the research of Dr. Montagnier and other scientists, we now know that HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus’s transmission to humans is linked to a type of chimpanzee in Central Africa. This transmission from animals established a new disease among the human population and eventually began a worldwide outbreak of HIV. The HIV virus attacks a component of the immune system, called T cells. Since it affects the immune system’s function, people with HIV are more likely to get infections and as the disease progresses, uncommon opportunistic infections and cancers can result from the body’s inability to adequately protect itself. AIDS is the most severe stage of HIV. At this level, the number of T cells is below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (normal is 500 to 1,600). Unfortunately, there is no cure for HIV or for AIDS, but there is treatment available to prolong life and slow the progression of HIV. Without treatment, people with AIDS typically survive about 3 years, but people who are treated with antiretroviral therapy (ART) while in the HIV stages of the disease can live almost as long as their healthy counterparts.

For any readers interested in the complex (and slightly messy) discovery of HIV, a great dramatization of the events is displayed in the movies “And the Band Played On.

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Dr.Virginia Apgar

This month’s “Notable Figure in Public Health” is Dr.Virginia Apgar. She played an important role in the development of a medical evaluation for newborns, called the “Apgar Score,” and she contributed to the development of an NGO organization that promotes awareness and funding for research.

The life and career of Dr.Apgar includes momentous accomplishments that have contributed to the direction of the medical field more than 50 years later. Her career began as a medical student at College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University during the onset of the Great Depression. Despite the economic and social challenges of the time, she continued to thrive in her education and even graduated 4th in her class in medical school in 1933. She wanted to pursue surgery, a field completely dominated by men at the time. At the encouragement of Dr.Whipple, upon seeing her drive and skill, she was encouraged to pursue anesthesiology after the completion of her surgical residency. At that time, anesthesiology was not a recognized specialty and the field was still under continuous growth and development. She eventually trained with the first anesthesiology department in the country, located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She returned to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons as an anesthesiologist in 1938, and when the field became a recognized specialty, she was appointed as the first full time female professor at the school.

During her time as a professor, her main focus was on obstetrical anesthesia. This is the study of the affects that anesthesia given to mothers during labor has on the newborn baby. During her study in this field, Dr.Apgar developed the Apgar Score. Changing the Face of Medicine states that the Apgar Score was “the first standardized method for evaluating a newborn’s transition to life outside the womb.” The Apgar Score scoring system evaluates newborns on their heart rate, respiration, movement, irritability, and color one minute after birth and again at five minutes after birth. The Apgar scor is represented by the APGAR acronym that represents Appearance (skin color), Pulse (heart rate), Grimace (reflex irritability), Activity (muscle tone), and Respiration. This scoring method is now an established standard of evaluation for newborns around the world. The scoring method reduced infant mortality and laid the foundations of neonatology. Furthermore, Dr.Apgar and her partners were able to establish a correlation between a newborn’s Apgar Score and the mother’s delivery conditions.

In 1958, obtained her Master of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins. Following this, she became involved in the March of Dimes organization for 15 years. In fact, the website states, “she became a pivotal figure in redirecting the March of Dimes mission in the 1960s from polio to birth defects and other infant health problems such as premature birth.” She acted as the head of the Division of Congenital Malformations. During her time with the organization, she promoted rubella immunization through the organization after a German Measles outbreak in the mid 1960s. She also worked tirelessly to reduce the stigma surrounding birth defects. She even co-authored a book with Joan Beck titled Is My Baby All Right? addressing birth defects.

Famous Names

Dr. C Walton Lillehei

This month, for the third edition of “Famous Names in Public Health!” I will focus on the medical side of healthcare by recognizing a figure who contributed significantly to the treatment of cardiac conditions. I have been reading “The Heart Healers” by Dr. James Forrester and have loved his story telling manner when describing the history of cardiac surgery, so I decided to choose a notable figure outlined in the story as the focus for this month’s segment. This man is Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, the father of open heart surgery.

In the years leading up to modern open heart surgery techniques, the field underwent many changes. Methods that were used in the 1950s are almost unfathomable by todays standards and ethics. However, it was in this time period that truly innovative (and dangerous) techniques were a long standing component in the quest for successful open heart surgery. Dr.Lillehei primarily focused on the yet-unsolved challenges to treating what were known as “blue babies,” or infants and children born with congenital heart defects that could not be repaired through medical treatment or closed heart surgery. These children often suffered symptoms of their disease without relief and were given the equivalent of a death sentence. While doctors could diagnose the conditions, they could do little to prevent the progression of the disease as structural problems in the heart failed to keep up with the demands of the patient’s growing body. Essentially, many of these children died due to an inability to efficiently pump blood to vital organs.

Dr.Lillehei was a pioneer in the development of heart-lung bypass systems and open heart surgery. In 1954, Dr. Lillehei performed the first successful open heat surgery using cross circulation with the father of the patient as the source of oxygenated blood. This method was used throughout numerous surgeries and put the “donor” at great risk of harm or injury, so the method was quickly abandoned as other forms of blood oxygenation developed. Dr.Lillehei was involved in the progression of open heart surgery methods moving forward. He helped implement the bubble oxygenator, hypothermia techniques, cardiac pacemakers and prosthetic heart valves. While some of these techniques are no longer used and the surgical devices he used have since undergone many changes to increase effectiveness, safety, and efficiency, Dr.Lillehei’s early involvement in cardiac care altered the trajectory of cardiac surgery, launching us into the future of medicine.

His career impacted many patients, medical staff, and physicians alike as he was active in academic and hospital administration positions throughout his career. After working as a surgeon at University of Minnesota Medical School , he served as the chairman of the department of surgery at Cornell University Medical Center and surgeon in chief at New York Hospital. He later returned to the University of Minnesota Medical Center and additionally served as chairman of the American College of Cardiology. The American Heart Association notes Dr.Lillehei’s lasting impact by stating, ” First- and second-generation Lillehei trainees have developed important techniques in transplantation, perfusion, coronary artery bypass, prosthetic valves, and congenital heart surgery.” This recognizes the lasting impact he had on cardiac surgery far beyond his own individual practice, research, and years of surgery.

Famous Names

John Snow

John_SnowWelcome to the second edition of “Famous Names in Public Health!” In this segment, I will give recognition to individuals who have made significant contributions to the fields of public health and medicine.

While Ygritte from “Game of Thrones” may disagree, it turns out that John Snow did know something. In fact, a man with the same moniker is credited as the father of epidemiology. Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants health outcomes and diseases in a population.

John Snow lived in London in the 1850s, at a time when modern health practices didn’t exist. It was widely believed that diseases and illness had some divine component and could be a kind of Godly punishment. People did not wash themselves or their hands daily, and they certainly didn’t know much about how infections spread. Sewage and waste were dumped in the streets, and water sources were easily contaminated. Fecal-Oral transmission was not a term or a recognized cause of disease in those days. In fact, Germ Theory was still gaining momentum and acceptance among scientists at this time. Microorganisms were seen as a secondary result of infection, not the cause. Dr. Snow’s actions helped cement this theory and forever change the management of disease outbreaks for centuries to come.

It all started when an outbreak of cholera (which is briefly described here) in London in 1854. The outbreak began in Soho and caused a staggering 550 deaths in just 2 weeks. Due to this, Dr.Snow went door-to-door to track the progression of the disease, and he color coded a map of the city outlining the affected and unaffected residents. Through his work, he was able to analyze the information for patterns, and he discovered that everyone in the afflicted area used the same water pump, the Broad Street water pump. After presenting his findings, the handle to the pump was removed , and the amount of cholera cases in the community decreased dramatically.

Although it took a significant amount of time for the spread of cholera to be linked to contaminated water, despite the evidence found in Dr.Snow’s research, his methodical and systematic pursuit of knowledge and information, as well as his analysis that ruled out other possible contributing factors of disease set the foundation of epidemiological research in the future.

Dr. Snow is also noted to have contributed to the study of the new field of anesthesiology and to have linked cholera disease to water-borne conditions.