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Boundary Breakers

By Sylvia Eggleston Wehr

Like many others, Francesca Dominici, a rising star on our Biostatisticsfaculty, was disheartened by comments about women and science from Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers. In mid-January, President Summers suggested that innate biological differences in women may account for the fact that fewer women succeed in scientific careers.

While she disagreed wholeheartedly with Summers’ premise, Francesca (who heads the faculty subcommittee for the University Committee on the Status of Women) found some good in his comments: They provoked discussion and might lead to more serious efforts to remedy the severe shortage of women scientists in senior academic positions. An outstanding biostatistician who is uncovering new links between air pollution and mortality, Francesca is a clear refutation of any notion that scientific research requires testosterone.

Fortunately for all of us, women have pursued life-saving science at the School since the very beginning. I am reminded of Janet Howell Clark, PhD. A School faculty member in 1918 (when there were very few women in academia), she researched the physiological effects of radiation, including visible and ultraviolet light, and helped discover that sunlight could protect children against rickets. Following Clark, the School’s distinguished women scientists have advanced public health on many fronts: Isabel Morgan, PhD, worked with David Bodian to make discoveries that led to the polio vaccine; Biostatistics professors par excellence Margaret Merrell, ScD ’30, and Helen Abbey, ScD ’51, gave generations of public health professionals the skills they needed to succeed; and Anna Baetjer, ScD ’24, did studies on chromium and other toxins that established her as an international expert in occupational health.

Today’s women scientists at the School continue to expand the boundaries of knowledge and health. In this issue, you’ll read about four women public health titans—Susan Baker, MPH ’68; Pearl German, ScD ’72; Edyth Schoenrich, MD, MPH ’71; and Barbara Starfield, MD, MPH ’68—whose scientific leadership has helped establish entire disciplines and has impacted the lives of a generation of students (“Wise Words,” page 18). Since there are obviously too many stories to tell here, we created a website about women who are part of the School’s rich intellectual milieu:

Although the proportion of women getting a PhD has increased steadily nationwide (it’s more than 50 percent at the School), women are still underrepresented in the United States among the ranks of tenured professors and especially departmental chairs and deans. Once you’ve had a chance to absorb the tremendous advances women have made here at the School—many in the face of adversity—I’m sure you’ll agree: The world needs more scientists like them.