Standing on the shoulders of pioneers

As we approach International Women’s Day, GPEI honours two women without whom we would not be where we are

Henrietta Lacks, in an undated photo, sought treatment for what turned out to be aggressive cervical cancer from Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. © The Lacks family

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951,  at the age of 31. Doctors in Baltimore, USA took a small sample of her tissue during the treatment to remove her tumour, without her knowledge – a not uncommon way to treat minorities at that time. Up to that point, attempts to grow human cells outside the body had failed. However, Lacks’ cells were different: they were able to divide and replicate indefinitely. These cells became the source of the HeLa cell line –  one of the most important cell lines in medical research – and contributed to developing the first polio vaccine. While the world has benefited greatly from Henrietta Lacks’ cells, the unethical use of her cells raised concerns about longstanding medical racism towards marginalized or minority communities – and has contributed to the movement towards more people- and community-centred care.

Margaret C. Snyder in 2016 at the exhibition “HERstory: A Celebration of Leading Women in the United Nations” at U.N. headquarters in Manhattan. Dr. Snyder created and ran a series of programs that brought training, loans and equipment to women around the world. © Megan Snyder

Margaret C. Snyder is often called the UN’s First Feminist. Her pioneering career refocused the mechanisms of global development aid to include women. As she wrote last year: “There was a failure to realize that the most serious problems of development defy solution without the involvement of women.” When she began working at the UN, in the early 1970s, most women did secretarial work. Under her influence, that began to change. By 2021, women make up a significant portion of UN professional staff, and applying a gender lens to the UN’s work has become essential.  This thinking was foundational to the systematic adoption of gender-based planning that has underpinned polio eradication. Margaret C. Snyder died earlier this year at the age of 91.


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