Heroines Yesterday, Heroines Today, and Heroines Tomorrow

Bessica Raiche (1875-1932) Pioneer Pilot, Aviation Inventor, Dentist, Doctor

Bessica or Bessie Raiche was an American woman who distinguished herself shortly after the turn of the 20th century in terms of versatility.

She was not only a dentist and a doctor, but is also accredited by the Aeronautical Society as being the first woman to fly an airplane in a solo flight.  She had no flight instruction or experience before taking to the sky alone. Bessie was  a woman before her time who loved to shoot guns and drive fast cars right alongside the boys.

Her and her husband built their airplane in their living room and assembled it in the yard. She flew the biplane in 1910. Bessie would live another 22 years, most of which she devoted to women’s health care as a distinguished specialist in Obstetrics and Gynecology in the US.

Biologist Heroines

Florence Sabin, 1871-1953

Florence Sabin was an American medical scientist and researcher, and the first female to graduate from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1900 and hold a full professorship at the institution. She was also the first women to head a department at the Rockefeller Institution for Medical Research, and the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She studied the brain and tuberculosis during her career, and later pursued a second career as a public health activist in Colorado. She received a Lasker Award for her activist work, and was a pioneer for women in science.

Florence was born in Colorado. She lost her mother from puerperal fever (sepsis) at seven years old, and moved in with relatives alongside her sister after the death. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Smith College in 1893, and then taught mathematics at a high school for two years in order to save money to study medicine.

She finally began studying at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and caught the attention of an anatomist called Franklin P. Mall, who encouraged Florence to become involved in two projects that shaped her academic research and reputation.

The first project involved producing a three-dimensional model of a newborn’s brainstem, which became a book called An Atlas of the Medulla and Midbrain that was published in 1901. Her hard work eventually led to various opportunities which allowed her to become a full-time professor of embryology and histology in 1917 and the first woman to ever become a full professor at a medical college.

In 1944, Florence had been retired for six years, but she was asked to chair a subcommittee on health by Colorado’s governor John Vivan. She assessed the public health of the state and its people, and presented her findings in a letter to the Governor in 1945, stating that the state was “backward in regard to public health”. She then became a fierce political warrior, and worked to have politicians who opposed health reform defeated in favor of those who supported it. Various health bills were passed thanks to her persistence and efforts, speeches and written works. In 1948 she become manager of health and charities for Denver, and donated her salary to medical research.

Florence sadly died in 1953 of a heart attack at age 81. In 2005, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine named one of its four colleges after her.

Rachel Carson, 1907-1964

Rachel Carson was an American marine biologist, writer, conservationist and environmentalist who raised awareness of the impact of fertilizers and pesticides on the environment.

She grew up on a farm, which may have inspired her to care for nature and wildlife. Rachel’s best-known book Silent Spring led to a presidential commission that helped launch greater environmental consciousness and later activism.

Rachel graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women in 1929, and continued her studies in zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins. After her first year of graduate school, she became a part-time student, and became an assistant at Raymond Pearl’s laboratory, where she worked on rats and Drosophila and earned the money she needed for tuition.

She earned a master’s degree in zoology in 1932. Her dissertation was on embryonic development of the pronephros (the first stage of kidney development) in fish. She wanted to go on to study at doctorate level, but had to leave Johns Hopkins to work and support her family. Rachel’s father died suddenly in 1935, leaving her to care for her aging mother. She settled for a temporary position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and wrote radio copy for a series of weekly educational broadcasts. She wrote for local newspapers and magazines in her spare time.

Rachel’s work was met with great appreciation, and she was soon offered a full-time position at the Bureau. She took the civil service exam, outscored all other applicants, and became the second woman hired for a full-time position at the Bureau. Soon after the Bureau became the Fish and Wildlife Service she was promoted to chief editor of publications, and went on to publish a book that won the National book Award for Nonfiction in 1952, among others.

Rachel died of cancer in April, 1964, but she is remembered as one of the early environmental activists who worked to preserve the natural world on behalf of future generations.