ALD22: Mary Eliza Mahoney, Licensed Nurse

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American woman to become a licensed nurse and to work professionally as a nurse in the USA.

Born in 1845 in Massachusetts, Mahoney’s interest in nursing began at school, where alongside traditional subjects she was taught about morality and humanity, and her interest was intensified by the increase in nurses during the American Civil War.

She began working as a maid, cook and nurse’s assistant at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which employed only female doctors. After working there for 15 years, and at the age of 33, Mahoney enrolled in the hospital’s nursing course, which covered medical, obstetric, surgical and paediatric services.

The criteria for admittance was strict, and the course extremely rigorous, with lectures and lessons from doctors, bedside training, working in wards and placements at other sites such as private family homes. She was also working as a private-duty nurse to top up her meagre wages. Mahoney was one of only three women to successfully complete the training and graduate from her class of 42 women and the only African American woman to do so.

She began her career after graduation as a private care nurse working for rich white families, particularly new mothers and their children. Initially, many families treated her as akin to a household servant, but as she gained a reputation for efficiency and professionalism, she began to receive requests from patients in a number of states.

Mahoney wanted to improve nursing for other women of colour like herself and change how patients thought of nurses from her background. Mahoney joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), but discovered that they weren’t welcoming to African American women. This prompted her to start a new organisation, and in 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). Although the organisation launched with only 26 nurses, she felt it was important to challenge the inequality of nursing education.

In her later career, Mahoney became the director of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, which was one of the few institutions run by African Americans. After she retired, she maintained her activist spirit, supporting women’s equality and suffrage, and demonstrating in the civil rights protests.

She died in 1926, aged 81.

The NACGN honoured her legacy by creating the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936, which continues today under the American Nurses Association, and is awarded to nurses who strive for equality in nursing. Mahoney was also the influence of the Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization, started in 1949 by Anne Foy Baker for African heritage nurses.

Further Reading

ALD22: Professor Rita Levi Montalcini, Neurobiologist

Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini was a neurobiologist who discovered nerve growth factor in collaboration with her colleague, Stanley Cohen. They were both awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986, and Levi-Montalcini became only the fourth woman to be awarded the prize.

Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin in 1909. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Turin Medical School in 1936, staying there to investigate the development of the nervous system. But she lost her job just two years later when Mussolini banned Jews from academic and professional careers.

Unable to officially work, she began buying fertilised eggs and studying chicken embryos in a laboratory that she set up in her bedroom, working in “primitive conditions”. She focused on understanding how nerve fibres grow in the embryos’ wings using microsurgical instruments she made herself from tools such as sewing needles and watchmakers’ tweezers. As the Guardian reported in her obituary, “many of the experiments could be eaten when they were finished.”

In 1943, she and her family fled to Florence, where they were protected from the Nazis by non-Jewish friends. After the war, they returned to Turin and in 1946, she moved to the US to take up a short term position at Washington University in St Louis, in Missouri. She successfully duplicated the experiments she’d done in her bedroom, and was offered a research associate position. She stayed at the university for 30 years.

In 1952, Levi-Montalcini grafted mouse tumour tissue onto chick embryos, and discovered that the cancerous tissues caused the rapid growth of nerve fibres. Somehow the tumour was encouraging nerve fibres to grow. She isolated a protein that she called nerve growth factor (NGF) from these cancerous tissues. This was painstaking and difficult work, but its importance to embryology and oncology was clear.

She became a professor in 1958 and four years later established a second lab in Rome, splitting her time between Italy and the USA. She became the director of the Research Centre of Neurobiology of the CNR (Rome), and then became director at the Laboratory of Cellular Biology of the Italian National Council of Research. In 2001 she became an Italian senatore a vita, or senator for life, able to sit in the Italian upper house of parliament. In 2002, she founded and later became president of the European Brain Research Institute.

She died in 2012, aged 103.

Further Reading

ALD22 Books: Sway, Professor Pragya Agarwal

Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, Professor Pragya Agarwal

For the first time, behavioural and data scientist, activist and writer Professor Pragya Agarwal unravels the way our implicit or ‘unintentional’ biases affect the way we communicate and perceive the world, how they affect our decision-making, and how they reinforce and perpetuate systemic and structural inequalities.

Sway is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at unconscious bias and how it impacts day-to-day life, from job interviews to romantic relationships to saving for retirement. It covers a huge number of sensitive topics – sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, colourism – with tact, and combines statistics with stories to paint a fuller picture and enhance understanding. Throughout, Agarwal clearly delineates theories with a solid grounding in science, answering questions such as: do our roots for prejudice lie in our evolutionary past? What happens in our brains when we are biased? How has bias affected technology? If we don’t know about it, are we really responsible for it?

At a time when partisan political ideologies are taking centre stage, and we struggle to make sense of who we are and who we want to be, it is crucial that we understand why we act the way we do. This book will enables us to open our eyes to our own biases in a scientific and non-judgmental way.

Order the book on here and your purchase will support a local independent bookshop of your choice!

About the Author

Professor Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural scientist, with expertise in cognition, HCI and User-centred Design, focused especially on diversity and inclusivity. She was a senior academic for over 12 years at universities in the UK and USA, and held the prestigious Leverhulme Fellowship, following a PhD from the University of Nottingham. Agarwal has published numerous scientific articles and books, some of which are on the reading list for leading courses around the world.

As a freelance writer, she regularly writes thought pieces on racial and gender bias for The Guardian, Times Higher Education, The Independent, and various other publications. Agarwal is a two-time TEDx speaker, and has been invited to give keynote talks and workshops around the world, appearing on several international podcasts, radio and television channels, such as BBC Woman’s Hour, BBC Breakfast, and Radio 5 Live. Her next book Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions is out later this year.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @DrPragyaAgarwal
Instagram: @drpragyaagarwal

ALD22: Professor Maria Pavlova, Palaeontologist

Maria Pavlova

Professor Maria Pavlova

Maria Vasilievna Pavlova, Мария Павлова, was a palaeontologist who discovered several hoofed mammals from the Tertiary period and changed our understanding of the ancestry of horses in Eurasia.

Born in 1854, from age 26, Pavlova studied natural history at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and the Sorbonne, graduating in 1884.

After graduation, she moved to Moscow where she began studying the geological collections held by the Moscow State University, where she worked for 30 years. She would go on to establish the Museum of Palaeontology there.

Pavlova began her career writing papers on Early Cretaceous ammonites from the Volga region before moving on to Tertiary mammal evolution. She travelled widely around Russia and Western Europe, studying museum collections and collecting fossils herself. She named and described several extinct species, including a rhinoceros P. transouralicum.

She also worked on the ancestry of horses, proving that Hipparion, a small three-toed horse, was not the direct ancestor of the modern horse as thought at the time, but an offshoot of the horse family tree. She then focused on ungulates (hoofed mammals) and proboscidians (elephants and their extinct relatives), especially mastodons.

In 1897, she was one of just two women to be invited to join the Organising Committee of the International Geological Congress, which was held in St Petersburg. Between 1887 and 1906, she published nine issues of Studies in the Paleontological History of Hoofed Animals. In 1899, she published a monograph, Fossil Elephants.

She became the head of the department of palaeontology at Moscow State University in 1910, and by 1912, she had collected over 10,000 specimens, which she gave to the university. In 1916, became a doctor of zoology of the Imperial Moscow University, an “extremely rare” rank for a woman.

She became a professor at the Moscow State University, and was instrumental in founding its palaeontological museum. In 1926, the museum was named after her and her husband who was also a geologist and palaeontologist.

Pavlova was the first Ukrainian or Russian woman to become a national and internationally successful vertebrate palaeontologist. In 1925, she was elected as a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a year later the Geological Society of France awarded her and her husband with a gold medal for their work.

She went on her final geological expedition in 1931, collecting fossil mammoths, elephants and rhinos from the Volyn district of northern Ukraine.

Further Reading

ALD22: Dr Katalin Karikó, Biochemist

Katalin Karikó

Dr Katalin Karikó

Katalin Karikó is a biochemist whose work on RNA-mediated immune activation laid the foundations required for the development of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

Karikó was born in 1955 in Hungary, and earnt her PhD at the University of Szeged before going on to do postdoctoral research at the Institute of Biochemistry, Biological Research Centre of Hungary until the lab lost its funding in 1985, at which point she moved to the US.

She began working on Messenger RNA (mRNA) in 1989 at the University of Pennsylvania. She wrote a grant application that proposed using mRNA in gene therapy, but it was rejected. Her ideas were unorthodox and the basic work required to do the research, such as making RNA molecules, was difficult. After a string of rejections, the university demoted her in 1995.

She persevered, hopping from lab to lab in low-paid positions. Then, by chance, Karikó met immunologist Drew Weissman, who wanted to make an HIV vaccine. She thought she could do it, but the mRNA caused the mice’s immune systems to react, triggering inflammation. But during another experiment they noticed that transfer RNA, which they’d used as a control, didn’t result in the same immune reaction as mRNA.

They discovered that nucleoside modifications of mRNA could make it non-immunogenic, but had difficulty getting their findings published. Their results were eventually published in 2005, in Immunity, but didn’t cause a splash at the time because other scientists didn’t believe that mRNA was a “usable molecule”. The paper has, however, now become a seminal publication in the field of mRNA therapeutics.

Karikó and Weissman also worked on developing an mRNA purification technique, as no such protocol existed, and they were eventually able to use high-performance liquid chromatography to purify mRNA. They knew that they could use mRNA to order cells to make any protein, including insulin, hormones or diabetes drugs. They could also use it to create a new type of vaccine where the mRNA would tell cells to make part of the virus, which would then stimulate the immune system. But they couldn’t get any traction.

They founded a company, RNARx, in 2006 and patented several modified nucleosides that reduced the antiviral immune response to mRNA. But the University of Pennsylvania sold the intellectual property rights, so when Moderna asked Karikó if they could licence the patent, all she could say was that she didn’t have it.

Realising that her opportunities to work on mRNA would be greater in industry, Karikó became a vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals in 2013, becoming a senior VP in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a huge amount of scientific work and collaboration, but it was Karikó’s research that formed the foundation for the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Once Chinese scientists had posted the virus’s genome, BioNTech designed its mRNA vaccine in hours and Moderna completed the task in two days. Other groups provided the data and expertise needed to make the vaccine a reality.

In 2022, Karikó won the Vilcek Prize for Excellence which recognises immigrant contributions to biomedical science and the arts. She has also received Spain’s Princess of Asturias Award for technical and scientific research, the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, the Horwitz Prize, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Further Reading