Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Could Catharine Macfarlane's work have lengthened Ada Lovelace's life?

One more post in honor of Ada Lovelace Day, who connects to many women in many different ways. I’m connecting Ada with Dr. Catherine Macfarlane. Had Ada been born a bit later, or Catherine Macfarlane earlier, Ada’s life may have lasted longer than her short 36 years.

Ada Lovelace died fairly young of cancer, in 1852. Some sources say uterine cancer specifically and some say she was bled to death in treating her illness.

The same year of Ada’s death, when women had few options for medical training, the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania (later Woman’s Med) graduated its first class of eight women physicians. Its 46th class of women physicians graduated in 1898 and included Catherine Macfarlane.

Evening Public Ledger, 1940 - Battle for HealthMacfarlane practiced and taught obstetrics and gynecology in Philadelphia and in time turned to research. Her work led to a theory that regular examination of women in apparent good health would be the best method to detect cancer in its early stages when it was most treatable. Initially, her theories were not popular and she had little support for her research.

In 1938 she co-founded the Cancer Control Research Project at Woman’s Med where women patients came in for regular pelvic examinations. The clinic was planned to run for five years but ultimately covered a fifteen-year period, providing data from over one thousand women. The project’s 1953 findings
supported Macfarlane’s theory and indicated that regular exams could help detect cancer of the uterus early on. Macfarlane then helped establish the first uterine cancer screening in Philadelphia, one of the earliest programs in the country.

Had Catherine Macfarlane been born earlier, would her work have changed the outcome of Ada Lovelace’s illness? In Lovelace’s era, women had almost no support for studying medicine; even in Macfarlane’s time, she was discouraged in pursuing her research. However, perhaps Lovelace’s passion and interest fanned the development of schools educating women, attitudes about women’s health, and ultimately, Macfarlane’s groundbreaking work in early cancer detection.

Ada Lovelace Day: A Visit from Marie Curie

In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, we look back at May 23, 1921, when the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania hosted a distinguished visitor – Marie Curie.

Dean Martha Tracy (herself a WMC alumna, class of 1904) spoke at the occasion:

"…it is singularly appropriate that the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, firm in its hard-won position in the first rank of American medical schools, should greet with profound sympathy and due reverence this woman citizen of a fellow-republic who has likewise won through years of self-sacrificing devotion to research her deserved position as the foremost of living scientists."
Curie was granted an honorary degree – but she herself was absent on that day due to illness (only the year before, she had begun to experience symptoms caused by exposure to radioactivity). In her place, her daughter Irène Curie accepted the honor; Mme. Curie recovered the next day, and a student took a photograph of her with Dr. Tracy to document her visit to the College.

Of course, the visit was not simply a social call – Mme. Curie was on a fundraising tour. Through a campaign organized by Marie 'Missy' Mattingly Meloney, editor of The Delineator, a popular women's magazine, more than $100,000 was 'raised by women' and Mme. Curie was presented with a gram of radium by President Harding 'on behalf of the women of America.'

The Medical Woman's Journal also documented the endeavor it described the lack of radium in post-war France and Mme. Curie's financial position:
"Madame Curie is a teacher of science and she has a teacher's salary. She is one of the richest women in the world in scientific lore, but she has given the fruits of her labor to her laboratory. So she could not afford to travel westward."
In a later issue, Madame Curie's trip and the overall fundraising effort were described in an editorial as 'Women's Gift to a Woman for the Benefit of Mankind' - it went on to note that:
"Every progressive step taken by women has been secured by fighting against custom and prejudice; it has been a continual revolt against the established order. That is the reason women make such good revolutionists."
For thousands of other blog posts on women in science and technology, check out Finding Ada - and for more on the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, follow us on Twitter. Thanks for visiting!

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