Trailblazing Women in Pharma History

From critical scientific breakthroughs, to “tough-as-nails” leadership, here are some of the women who have shaped the pharmaceutical industry.

By Meagan Parrish, senior editor

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Like most industries, it’s been slow going for women reaching the upper echelons of the pharma world.

Across the entire pharmaceutical manufacturing sector, the gap between women and men has been shrinking. According to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics women make up 42.2 percent of the pharma industry. At the highest levels, however, the picture is different. Today, women comprise about 20 percent of management teams at biotech companies and make up about 10.5 percent of biotech boards.

But the contributions from women in the industry have, and continue to be, significant. From breakthrough research to regulatory leadership, here are some of the women who have made the pharma industry what it is today.

Gertrude Elion


Gertrude Elion. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Born in 1918, Gertrude Elion was a standout student from an early age and graduated from high school when she was just 15. After her grandfather died from cancer, she set her sights on developing new medicines to fight the disease.

Despite graduating Hunter College with high honors, landing a job as a woman was no easy task. Eventually, however, Elion found a home at a pharma company called Burroughs Wellcome, where she dove into cancer research using a new method that targeted unhealthy cells. In 1950, she created two new leukemia drugs and helped usher in a new wave of revolutionary cancer research.

In 1978, Elion had another breakthrough and developed a new class of antiviral drugs that could more accurately kill a virus without harming healthy cells.

Leila Denmark

Towards the end of her life, Leila Denmark was primarily known for her remarkable career as a pediatrician. After 73 years practicing medicine in Atlanta, Ga. she retired in 2001 — when she was 103 years old.

But she also spearheaded an effort to combat a once-deadly disease. In the 1930s, Denmark watched a dangerous epidemic of whooping cough roll across her community, which prompted her to begin publishing numerous studies of the disease. Ultimately, after working with Eli Lilly and researchers at Emory University, she was credited with co-creating a vaccine for whooping cough.

Denmark also published books on children’s health. Denmark died in 2012—she was 114 years old.

Frances Kelsey

When Frances Kelsey was tasked with reviewing thalidomide during her first month working at the FDA, the assignment was supposed to be straight-forward. It was 1960 and the drug had become a popular go-to in Europe for sleeping issues. But Kelsey, who had spent decades teaching pharmacology before taking the position at the FDA, was worried about the data showing potentially harmful side effects. Ultimately, she refused to approve the drug.


Frances Kelsey. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Even as pressure from manufacturers mounted, Kelsey dug her heels in and pushed for a ban on the drug in the U.S. The following year, reports that thalidomide were causing birth defects in children whose mothers had taken the drug began pouring in from Europe, strengthening her case. Kelsey ultimately won her battle and is credited for averting a disaster in the U.S. like the one that unfolded in Europe where at least 4,000 children were afflicted with often horrific side effects from the drug.

Kelsey went on to have a long career at the FDA with many notable accomplishments, including her work strengthening the agency’s testing and review processes, and implementing measures to protect patients involved in drug investigations.

Janet Woodcock

Dr. Janet Woodcock kicked off her career FDA in 1986, and has since worked her way up through the ranks while making waves at the agency. Now the director for the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), Woodcock has been instrumental in rolling out a new approach to drug safety evaluations.

She has also become known for her openness to patient feedback. In 2016, Woodcock made headlines after successfully lobbying the FDA to approve a new drug for Duchennne muscular dystrophy — a rare disease that often causes early death.

The move was controversial because there are few studies showing that the drug is effective. Although critics argued that the Woodcock’s support of the treatment showed that she was too cozy with the drug industry, patient advocates maintained that it showed her commitment to giving patients with no other options some kind of hope.

Woodcock’s unwavering stance throughout the public debate prompted the chief executive officer at the National Health Council to comment that Woodcock is “tough as nails.”   

Emma Walmsley


Emma Walmsley. Photo: GSK

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