Women scientists at the time of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic

In these days of crisis due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic we listen the words of eminent biologists, virologists, doctors, the most part of them are all men. But the women? Are there no experts women in the field of virology? Biology?

In Italy, the national treatment and research center for infectious diseases is the Lazzaro Spallanzani Institute in Rome. The first two cases of patients with Covid-19 identified in Italy were hospitalized in this hospital and after only two days the research team isolated the genetic profile of SARS-CoV-2 (name of the beta-coronavirus that develops the disease called Covid-19) and made it available to the scientific community. An all-female research team: Professor Concetta Castilletti, Dr. Maria Rosaria Capobianchi and researcher (at the time with a fixed-term contract) Francesca Colavita. Three women. This team isolated the original version of the betacoronavirus, the Chinese one. The day-after at the Sacco in Milan, another female-led team by the immunologist Claudia Ballotta, isolated the Italian version of the virus.

There are Women and they are decisive in this emergency.

Yet they seem almost evanescent, fairy-tale characters, their names appear on the newspapers’ pages and media the time of a coffee, and then destined to be forgotten.

Is It really like this?

Unfortunately, History points it out to us. Let’s look at what happened at the Spallanzani Institute (INMI), the same as the women’s team that isolated the SARS-Cov-2 beta-coronavirus. In 2018, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the birth of INMI, a mural was commissioned along the 270 meters of the hospital wall. The three artists, inspired by the following message “Lessons from the Past, Challenges for the Future”, depicted the faces of 13 scientists, to celebrate the great men who wrote the history of infectious diseases’ research. An all-male “hall of fame” of science. But where are the women? And to say that the work was commissioned by a woman, the general manager of Spallanzani hospital Marta Branca. Is it possible, that in the history of infectious diseases, there has not been any woman who has done important research? Anyone who has the right to be depicted on the hall of fame?

It is not so.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, an English biochemist pioneered in the technique of X-ray crystallography. She was born in Cairo in 1910. Her mother, Grace Mary Hood, was an archaeologist and her father, John Winter Crowfoot, was an “official of the Empire” and archaeologist. Crowfoot Hodgkin as a child helped in archaeological excavations and then, at the age of 10 she interested in mineralogy and chemistry. She graduated in chemistry in Oxford in 1932 and in 1937 obtained her PhD in chemistry in Cambridge, her research project concerned X-ray crystallography and sterol chemistry. Through this technique she discovered the three-dimensional structure of cholesterol, insulin and penicillin and vitamin B12. Penicillin studies were fundamental for the design and synthesis of other antibiotics essential for the treatment of infectious diseases. Thanks to hers studies, especially those aimed at identifying the structure of vitamin B12, in 1964 she won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Yet she is not depicted in the hall of fame.

This image is a work of the National Institutes of Health, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Gertrude Belle Elion, American pharmacologist and biochemist. Born in New York in 1918, she won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988 together with James Whyte Black and George H. Hitchings for the development of numerous drug therapies. In particular, thanks to her studies, it was possible to produce the first AIDS drug, AZT, and aciclovir, the first antiviral drug against herpes infection.

Yet she is not depicted in the hall of fame.

And to bridge the present, the French immunologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi who identified and isolated the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which is the cause of AIDS. And for this discovery she received the Nobel prize for medicine in 2008 with Luc Montagnier.

Yet she is not depicted in the hall of fame.

These are just a few examples and today, in the midst of a global emergency, we realize that our project is more essential than ever before, to remember the women scientists not only for the time of a coffee.

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