In 1916, Louise Whitman Farnam wanted to study medicine, and one of the reasons she was told that women could not attend Yale School of Medicine was that there were no bathrooms for women.
She eventually attended and graduated four years later, thanks to her talent and drive, but also as a result of a gift to the school from her father, Henry Farnum.
“Many of us who have benefited from the opportunity of attending Yale School Medicine can thank the courageous women who came before us,” said Dr. Susan J. Baserga, Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Genetics, and Therapeutic Radiology at YSM. “And we must also remember their fathers and mothers, who believed that their daughters’ education — particularly at this time — was just as important as their sons’. And also in the case of Henry Farnum, we must be grateful for his strategic donation of plumbing facilities so that the specious argument about why women can’t be doctors could be put to rest here at Yale.”
Baserga and other outstanding women who are or were faculty at YSM spoke in June at a symposium celebrating 100 years of women at YSM, showcasing the history, science, and clinical accomplishments of women and highlighting current issues women face in the field of medicine.
More than 700 people registered for the event, sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine (SWIM), the Minority Organization for Retention & Expansion (MORE), and the Dean’s Office.
Women’s Health Research at Yale Director Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D., presented the history of U.S. public policy on women’s health research and how WHRY has been changing the landscape of medical research and practice for 20 years.
“If we want to see improvement in health and health care, I think most of us would agree, that it depends upon developing new knowledge that we can incorporate into our personal practice and our professional practice,” Mazure said.
But early on in her education Mazure found that the prevailing scientific tradition in the United States and around the world was one in which women were not generally included as participants in clinical trials, a problem that persisted until the mid-1990s.
“And in the cases where women were included, we were taught growing up in science that we really didn’t have to analyze the data by gender outcome,” Mazure said. “And as a consequence of that, it has really left us with this incredible gap in knowledge about women’s health.”
Mazure summarized why women should be studied. For starters, she said, women are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases and disability, have acute and chronic pain, die following a heart attack, develop depression and anxiety, have autoimmune diseases, develop Alzheimer’s disease, and have unique reproductive health requirements.
She described how WHRY began funding pilot studies because those wishing to study women’s health did not have the necessary feasibility data to obtain external grants. Over 20 years, the center has funded $5 million in seed grants that have gone on to produce feasibility data for external grants of $102 million for the researchers to continue and extend their work.
The data now show that sex and gender differences contribute to the prevalence, risk factors, presentation, and course of diseases such as osteoporosis and stroke. We know that the response to a treatment can vary by sex and gender, such as with anesthesia and smoking. And prevention strategies for viruses such as HIV or conditions such as alcohol abuse often need to be sex-and-gender specific to be effective.
In addition, Mazure stressed how WHRY embraces the importance of communicating the latest findings to the widest audience possible so that people can make more informed decisions about their health. And she talked about how the center works to train the next generation of researchers and clinicians, while informing non-partisan public action.
“We really are just at the beginning of learning about women’s health,” Mazure said. “And most importantly, we need to seriously begin examining both the differences between and the differences among women and men.”