A Woman's Place Is in Medicine: How Nightingale and Pasteur Changed the Landscape
But somehow, the conversation shifted to medicine and women. My daughter was in a mood to listen and it was one of those great teaching moments that moms cherish.
I explained to her the modern concept of migraines, and where medicine is right now in its assault on the debilitating illness. I talked about the various new medications and discussed the older forms of treatment, particularly laudanum -- an intensely powerful opiate concoction -- which was once a prescribed and taken medicine of choice for many women.
It was then that it dawned on me that women's place in the history of medicine is not often a subject that young girls are offered information about or encouraged to understand. It should be standard practice to educate young women about what their ancestors endured for medical sake: treatment that was often literally shocking.
In recent years, women have taken charge of raising funds for both heart and breast cancer research and treatment. Pink and red are colors that now define our willingness to take the hands of neighbors we watch suffering from diseases that demand cures. We run for each other, volunteer and raise the bar for standards that will eliminate kinds of suffering that in the past were often relegated to the category of "it's all in your mind."
If a woman with a history of menstrual-related, hormone-triggered migraines had been born in the Regency era and had the same symptoms, for example, those around her would often relegate the source of those pains to an attack of the "vapors."
To combat the malady, her days would have centered on the need to take a not-so-well regulated dosing of laudanum because it was dispensed legitimately. Because it was medicine, it didn't have the same type of taxation as alcohol and was actually less expensive, so it was readily prescribed. It was a double-edged sword of care in the sense that it would alleviate pain -- real pain -- but it also led to addiction and the possibility of shorter life spans and decreased quality of life for so many.
Later, as war brought about a greater awareness of what was happening to the human body under stress, women took the reins of health care into their own hands.
One woman, a heroine of mine, Florence Nightingale, would set medicine on its ear when she headed to the Crimea in 1852 to undertake her first mission of mercy. It is remarkable that medicine has changed so profoundly in the mere 159 years since that powerhouse of purpose packed her bags and left home, much to the consternation of her own mother and sister.
Her techniques and principles inspired other women around the world, and nursing as a profession of respect was born -- significantly inspiring women to tackle another all-male world of doctors. Nightingale brought strict routine to medicine, including proper food, clean conditions and an approach to care that was people-centered.
These were the gifts of this dynamic woman. Prior to Nightingale, there was little respect accorded those who tended to the wounded or dying unless they were male. Women assisted as midwives, a profession that today has developed far, far beyond what it was then, or they were servants, with little training in any kind of medical procedures. She was called the "Lady With the Lamp," and to this day, everyone who cringes at the sight of a nurse wielding a syringe and needle (male or female) should stop and say thank you, even if just for a second.
How many millions owe their lives to her, a British subject who left a world of money and means to travel to a disease-soaked Crimea, where more soldiers were dying from infection than death on the battlefield? You cannot put a price on what she did for all of us.
Medical research as it exists today is a combination of the scientific achievements of men and women like Nightingale and Louis Pasteur. Surprisingly, Pasteur was intent on eliminating childbirth mortalities among women who died as a result of unclean practices as their pregnancies were coming to what should have been a joyous end.
Rather than assume that the problems were all in the mind, as many of his contemporaries did, he looked at them from the perspective that women were hard-working, intelligent, strong and resilient members of society. It was not a lack of character or ill luck that took the lives of so many new mothers, but bacteria, deadly micro creatures and infection.
Pasteur, along with other scientists mostly of the next generation, would generate enthusiasm for a radical new approach to dealing with disease and the hardships illness can bring. His work with rabies inoculation and prevention would even elevate the likelihood that dogs would soon have an opportunity to become man's best friend, as opposed to their image then as a fearsome but farm-useful animal that harbored an equally fearsome chance of carrying rabies.
Two people. And as women, we owe them each an enormous debt. To pay it back, wear that red dress or pink ribbon. It honors all that they stood for in bringing women to a better place in medicine.
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