Women in science: A timeline

It’s been over 150 years since the first woman qualified as a physician in Britain. Since then, the stage has been set for women to become trailblazers in their industries, contributing to everything from vital research to revolutionary NHS operations. Read about the women who’ve helped shape the world of science. 


First woman to qualify as a physician

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson obtained her license from the Society of Apothecaries to practice medicine, making her the first woman qualified as a physician in Britain.


Marie Curie becomes the first woman to win a Nobel Prize

She won the award for her research into radioactivity, picking up the Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel. She won a second Nobel Prize, this time for chemistry, in 1911, and remains the only woman to win a Nobel Prize twice. Marie Curie’s research was instrumental in the development of x-rays. During World War One, Curie developed and operated mobile x-ray units to treat wounded soldiers on the front lines.


First successful operation to correct a congenital heart defect

Helen Taussig, Vivien Thomas and Alfred Blalock performed the first successful operation to correct Tetralogy of Fallot, complex congenital heart defect that causes “blue baby” syndrome (so called because the heart defect means the blood doesn’t receive enough oxygen, so the skin takes on a blue colour)The operation was performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on 15-month-old baby, Eileen Saxon.


First woman to win the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine

Gerty Theresa Cori becomes the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with Carl Ferdinand Cori and Bernardo Houssay. They won for their discoveries of how the body produces and uses energy.


DNA's helical structure is discovered

In taking several high-resolution photos of DNA, Rosalind Franklin was instrumental in the discovery of DNA's structure. Crick and Watson revealed they used her data to formulate their 1953 hypothesis about the helical structure of DNA.


First successful artificial human heart valve replacement

Nina Braunwald, from New York, USA, leads the team that was the first to complete a successful artificial human heart valve replacement – a valve which she had also designed. She later went on to develop a cloth-covered mechanical heart valve (the Braunwald-Cutter valve), which was put to use in thousands of valve replacement operations during the late 1960s and early 1970s.


First woman president of the American Heart Association

Helen Brooke Taussig becomes the first woman president of the American Heart Association, a non-profit organisation that funds cardiovascular medical researchShe famously discovered blue baby syndrome after developing a method to study children’s heartbeat with her hands after she turned deaf in her 30s.


UK's first heart transplant

The first heart transplant in the UK is carried out. Dr. Jane Somerville (pictured seated, bottom right) was the physician for the transplant operationThe recipient, Fred West, 45, would survive for just 45 days. Dr Jane Somerville would later go on to co-found the Grown Up Congenital Heart Patients Association along with Judy Shedden MBE in 1993, with initial funding provided by the BHF.


Read more about her accomplishments as a world leading cardiologist


Mary Sheila Christian becomes consultant in A&E medicine at Wexham Park Hospital, Slough

While there, she reorganised services to provide larger, more centralised departments with a better standard of care, and started one of the first paramedic training courses in the UK. She is considered one of the founders of accident and emergency medicine in the UK.


First woman to be awarded a Royal Pharmaceutical Society conference science medal

Professor Molly Stevens is awarded a Royal Pharmaceutical Society conference science medal. She’s the first woman to receive it in the society’s 40-year history, and later goes on to become the first female scientist to appear in Vogue magazine. Published in 2011, the science-orientated article celebrates British Editorial Wonder Women.


Read about Professor Molly Stevens' research into lab grown heart cells that we are currently funding.


Professor Costanza Emanueli is named a BHF Senior Fellow and University Research Professor

After 5 years as a British Heart Foundation Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol, Professor Costanza Emanueli is named a BHF Senior Fellow and University Research Professor in 2010. Professor Emanueli is instrumental in the research into microRNA, tiny molecules found within DNA, and hopes to use this knowledge to develop new solutions for heart surgery patients. In 2015, Professor Emanueli was named a BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Science.


Find out more about Professor Costanza Emanueli's research into 'junk DNA'.


Dr Naila Rabbani discovers potential link between a newly found form of cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease

Dr Naila Rabbani led a BHF-funded study at the University of Warwick into the ‘ultra-bad’ form of cholesterol, called MGmin-low-density lipoprotein (LDL). The team found that it’s stickier than normal LDL, which makes it more likely to attach to the walls of arteries. This forms dangerous fatty plaques that cause coronary heart disease. It’s hoped this will lead to effective treatment to reduce the effects on patients’ arteries. 


A groundbreaking book on oxygen is published

BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the BHF Glasgow Cardiovascular Research Centre, Rhian Touyz, publishes the book ‘Reactive Oxygen Species and the Cardiovascular System’. It looks at how different oxygen species can affect the way that the cardiovascular system operates. Professor Touyz specialises in a number of areas, including hypertension (high blood pressure), which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Find out more about Professor Rhian Touyz's research into high blood pressure.


Federica Marelli-Berg is awarded a BHF Chair in Cardiovascular Immunology

Federica Marelli-Berg at Queen Mary, University of London, is awarded prestigious BHF Chair in Cardiovascular Immunology. One of her aims is to focus on the wider effects of anti-rejection drugs, taken by patients after organ transplantation. Watch our interview (below) with Professor Federica Marelli-Berg about her research into organ transplant rejection.


Read more about BHF Professor Federica Marelli-Berg's research into organ transplant rejection and myocarditis.


Professor Barbara Casadei is named President of the European Society of Cardiology

Professor Casadei, from Italy, is one of the UK’s leading experts in atrial fibrillation, as well as a Honorary Consultant Cardiologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. In 2012 she was announced as a British Heart Foundation professor, taking up a post as Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the BHF Centre of Excellence, University of Oxford. 


Read our interview with Professor Casadei where she discusses women in science and her research into statins.


Professor Joanna Wardlaw receives the Presidential Award at the European Stroke Conference

Professor Joanna Wardlaw is honoured with the Presidential Award at the European Stroke Conference in honour of her contribution to stroke research and associated small vessel diseases.


Read our interview with Professor Joanna Wardlaw about her research into lacunar stroke and dementia.


Professor Vanessa Ferreira receives the 1st Dudley J.Pennell Award

Professor Vanessa Ferreira, at the University of Oxford, is awarded the 1st Dudley J. Pennell Award 2018 in recognition of her work being heavily referenced in her field of science. Professor Ferreira, who is BHF Associate Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, wrote a paper investigating new ways to image myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, which was the most referenced paper from 2014-16.


BHF announces its new Associate Medical Director

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan is announced as anAssociate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation. She is internationally recognised for her research to improve the care and quality of the life of adults who were born with heart defects, and also currently holds a BHF Intermediate Clinical Research Fellowship.


See how Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan's research into congenital heart conditions is making a difference.


The University of Glasgow delivers results of the first UK government-commissioned audit on precision medicine

Precision medicine looks at separating certain conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, into different sub-types, all slightly different and requiring different treatments, allowing for more accurate diagnosis and more effective, individualised treatments. The research is led by Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak, Regius Professor of Medicine, Vice Principal and Head of the University’s College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, who joined the Board of BHF Trustees in 2014. 


Women in science

We’re helping women to start their career in science. As of January 2019, two thirds of the PhD students we fund are women. At a more senior level, 51 of the 120 personal fellowship holders are women.