Women Scientists at FDA: A Legacy to be Proud Of

By: Suzanne Junod, Ph.D.

This is National Women’s History Month, a good time to reflect on FDA’s history of advancing women as scientists and health professionals. This tradition began with FDA’s predecessor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture. Several early female FDA scientists came out of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the first universities in the country to offer women chemistry degrees in the late 19th century.

Suzanne JunodHarvey Wiley, known as the Father of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act and its “crusading chemist,” hired FDA’s first female laboratory chief. When his superiors found out that the “M. E. Pennington” he had selected to head a research laboratory was actually Mary Engles Pennington, he successfully argued that since she had received the top score on the Civil Service exam, he had no grounds on which to refuse her the position.  His argument carried the day.

Frances Kelsey, who had earned both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in pharmacology, was hired by FDA in 1960 as a medical officer. She came into the agency with top scientific credentials and a strong research background. In part, it was her experience with animal research that led her to question the effects of the drug thalidomide on fetal animals when that drug was submitted for FDA review. She had still not received a satisfactory answer to that question when the dangers of thalidomide became known and it was discovered to be a potent teratogen, an agent that can lead to birth defects. Thalidomide was never approved for marketing in the U.S.

FDA’s first women field inspectors, in contrast, were hired only after President Lyndon Johnson declared that the federal government would lead the way in implementing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Imogene Gollinger, the first woman hired, had a degree from New York University and experience as a science teacher. She recognized that she was given the “opportunity of a lifetime” and happily reported to FDA wearing white gloves and a hat, which were immediately exchanged for standard-issue coveralls.

The concerns about women being able to keep up with the men proved to be misplaced. Gollinger was teased for buying a shopping cart to carry her heavy bag of inspector’s equipment, but she soon noticed men using them as well. While women willingly did the heavy and dirty field work, such as climbing into boxcars to obtain grain samples, they were increasingly drawn to investigative work involving piecing together data rather than simply gathering samples for analysis. For the female inspectors, compliance activities soon began to gain parity with traditional field sampling in FDA’s field operation.

Today, women make up approximately 59 percent of FDA’s work force, all of whom are involved in protecting and promoting public health. This is a legacy to be proud of as we celebrate women’s history.

Suzanne Junod, Ph.D., is an Historian at FDA.

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