March is Women’s History Month, a memorial that’s necessary because traditionally, women never made into history books, despite their indelible impact on so many different fields. Diabetes is no exception! From physicians to actors to scientists to athletes, women have been a huge force in improving the care of diabetes and how people perceive this condition. So today, we’ve chosen to highlight three of those women: Dr. Priscilla White, Eva Saxl and Helen Murray Free. Not only did they make huge accomplishments for diabetes, they also made great strides for Womankind.
Dr. Priscilla White
Who among us isn’t familiar with the renowned endocrinologist Dr. Elliot Joslin, founder of the world-famous diabetes institution The Joslin Center and the namesake for Camp Joslin for Boys? But you might not have heard of Dr. Priscilla White. In 1923, just a year after after insulin was invented, she graduated third in her class from Tufts University Medical School, years before Harvard Medical School even accepted women. Dr. White was the youngest founding member of The Joslin Center and one of the first people to treat children with diabetes. Along with Dr. Joslin, she also was a founding member of the Clara Barton Camp.
While she spent much of her time treating children with diabetes, she was personally passionate about diabetes and pregnancy. Women today owe a lot to Dr. White for the research and techniques she developed. Dr. White discovered that women with diabetes who delivered a month early would often have better success than those who delivered at full-term, because babies of diabetic women were often very large and could die during the birthing process.
When Dr. White started work at Joslin, the success rate for diabetic pregnancy was only 54%. By the time she retired in the 1980s, it was over 90%! Under Dr. White’s supervision, over 2,200 babies were successfully delivered. Now that sounds like someone I would want on my diabetes team!
Her achievements were well-known in her time, and Dr. White was highly respected by the diabetes community. She was the first woman awarded the Banting Medal, the American Diabetes Associations highest medical award.
Eva Saxl’s story of overcoming adversity to save the lives of hundreds is remarkable and inspirational. Eva Saxl and her husband escaped Czechoslovakia during World War II and fled to China. While in China, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Japan, however, occupied China and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the occupation tightened and all pharmacies were closed. Without life-saving insulin, Eva relied on black market insulin, but soon even that was running out. So Eva and her husband Victor decided to make “homemade” insulin, using the same technique Banting and Best used on dogs, only this time they used rabbits.
Eva wasn’t the only type 1 diabetic affected by the lack of insulin. Living in a Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, many others were also in dire need of insulin; Eva and Victor managed to make enough insulin from 1941 until 1945 to save the lives of 200 people. Miraculously, no one died from tainted insulin.
Amazing, amazing resolve. You can also watch Eva’s story on dLifeTV.
Helen Murray Free
Originally intending to become a teacher, Helen Murray Free changed her major to chemistry after World War II began and men were enlisted to serve in the army. After graduating from college, Helen went to work for Miles Laboratories (now part of Bayer), where she met her husband, Albert Free. Along with her husband, Helen worked to develop urinalysis testing.
Helen’s own achievement was in Clinistix, the home urinalysis test that allowed patients to dip a strip into urine to get an instant test for the presence of glucose. This was the first time people with diabetes were able to monitor their blood sugar levels (albeit imperfectly) at home, and away from the lab. It was truly the beginning of patient-driven diabetes management.
A salute to all the women (past, present and future) who have made a difference in the lives of people with diabetes! We literally could not live without you…