Important Women in Public Health

Illustration of female silhouettes with various colorful hairstyles.

Public health professionals work to improve the safety of communities through education, policy, and prevention. Throughout history, women have played a huge role as important public health figures across the globe. Whether on the front lines or working behind the scenes, women in public health have moved our country and the world forward.

In fact, a United States study by Michele Swers, professor and author, found that when in government leadership roles, women sponsor the most healthcare legislation. Furthermore, women in Congress sponsor more bills overall. According to the New York Times, “those bills are more likely to benefit women and children or address issues like education, health, and poverty.”

Government isn’t the only way that women impact public health,­ though. Females assume leadership roles in research, healthcare facilities, healthcare companies, and more. Here are just a few of the incredible women in public health who have accomplished huge achievements nationally and globally by standing up for what they believe is right and working hard.

Susan Desmond-Hellmann, M.D., MPH

Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann is a physician and philanthropist, currently working as the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She’s proudly contributed to the public health sector for decades. Of her work, she said, “All the learning I had done to become a doctor didn’t matter at all if I didn’t make a contribution.”

At the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, which she joined in 2014, she can truly make a difference. She works hard to ensure every person, all over the world, has the chance to be healthy and gets access to the proper medical care. Before joining the organization, she spent time as an oncologist, helping to develop two of the first gene-targeted treatments for cancer.

Desmond-Hellmann has won many awards for her work and has been included on Fortune magazine’s most powerful women in business list seven times.

Anne Szarewski, M.D.

Dr. Anne Szarewski is known for leading the research that confirmed that the human papillomavirus (HPV) played a role in the development of cervical cancer. Her research helped spur the creation of a vaccine preventing HPV that has dramatically dropped cervical cancer rates. Szarewski also wrote many books and papers that were easy to understand so that the public could be educated in matters of reproductive health.

Szarewski became editor of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care in 2003 and made herself available to be interviewed about HPV, cervical cancer, and other reproductive issues often before her passing in 2013.

Mae Jemison, M.D.

Dr. Mae Jemison has an incredible and varied career behind her. She was the first African American woman to travel in space, but her contributions to public health are also extremely noteworthy. After she completed her medical training, she joined the Peace Corps as a medical officer where she served in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

She went on to found the Jemison Group, a technology consulting firm that works to integrate socio-cultural issues into the design of engineering and science and projects, such as satellite technology for adequate healthcare access. She’s also dedicated her life to educating the public about the sciences and has worked as a professor. She founded The Earth We Share, an international science camp for students between the ages of 12 and 16 years old. In addition, she serves on many boards for major companies.

Make an Impact in Public Health

If you find these stories of women in public health inspiring, consider furthering your career in public health. Rivier University’s online MPH degree allows you to enhance your career as a public health policy leader and practitioner.

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Rani Hoff, MPH, Ph.D.

Dr. Rani Hoff currently serves as the director of the Northeast Program Evaluation Center (NEPEC) at Yale University, as well as the director of the Evaluation Division of PTSD, the associate director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program, and the head of the Women and Trauma Core of Women’s Health at the university.

Hoff has contributed to mental health research with incredible impacts, including studies on substance abuse and dependence, suicide risk, and the mental health issues experienced by veterans returning from the Middle East. She also advises senior management in various offices of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sue Casteel, M.S.

Sue Casteel is an environmental health scientist with the Division of Community Health Investigations, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. As an environmental health scientist and educator, Casteel advises communities and individuals after natural disasters to ensure they are safe from further harm.

Her resume is quite impressive. She helped plan to get people safely back into their homes in Joplin, Missouri after the 2011 tornado outbreaks. She also educated the community about how to carefully return to their homes while avoiding disease and other safety hazards after Hurricane Katrina.

Her goal of ensuring that people are well educated and can remain healthy despite circumstances has driven her career.

Najla Al-Sonboli, Ph.D.

Dr. Najla Al-Sonboli is the head of the Pediatric Department of Al-Sabeen Hospital for Maternity and Children, the biggest referral pediatric hospital in Yemen.

In a country torn apart by war, Al-Sonboli continues to take risks for the health of the children her hospital treats. She is known to organize staff to volunteer because many of the medical staff have no salaries due to the war. She’s also well-versed in working with minimal resources to provide health services to babies and pediatric patients. An outspoken advocate for the youth of her war-torn country, she’s working hard to give a voice to the voiceless.

Her ultimate goal is to continue to provide health services to as many as she can until peace is restored in Yemen.

Laura S. Brown, Ph.D.

Dr. Laura S. Brown’s contribution to public health is in the form of psychology. A clinical and forensic psychologist in Seattle, Washington, Brown is a speaker and author specializing in trauma treatment, cultural competence, and more. She served as president of the Society for the Psychology of Women (SPW) from 1996 to 1997 and has 40 years of experience as a leader in feminist psychology.

Trailblazing through new areas of psychology, Brown has received many awards and her written works are vast. She hopes to continue to help “heal the world” through her work as a psychologist.

Helen Clark

Helen Clark was the prime minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008. As a political leader, she is known for her public health policy in relation to climate change research and action. Clark was the administrator of the United Nations Development Program from April 2009 until April 2017 and was the first woman to lead the organization.

Clark is a strong advocate for sustainability. As an promoter of environmental awareness and public health, she has found herself on the Forbes most powerful women list multiple times.

Margaret Chan, OBE, J.D.

Dr. Margaret Chan served as the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) from 2006 to 2017. Before her leadership position with WHO, she was Director of Health in Hong Kong. There, Chan encountered the first human outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza in 1997. In 2003, she also worked to overcome severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong.

According to Forbes, Chan’s harsh but strong response to how the world dealt with the Ebola outbreak led to a revamping of emergency response protocol and increased funding.

Rebecca Onie

Rebecca Onie made a name for herself as a health entrepreneur when she founded Project HEALTH as a college sophomore. Project HEALTH worked to eliminate barriers to healthcare for low income individuals, such as affordable and safe childcare, food, housing, and transportation. With the idea that the health system could address all patient needs, Onie developed “a program that works in concert with hospitals and physician mentors to mobilize college students to assist patients in overcoming obstacles limiting their access to health care.”

Now called Health Leads, her organization has expanded to multiple cities and includes thousands of volunteers.

Make an Impact in Public Health

Public health service includes researching, advocating, innovating, and educating. To achieve in these areas, all the women mentioned above have one important tool in their pocket: a robust education. Extending your public health knowledge can help you become a leader in the sector and make a difference in the lives of people across the globe, no matter the cause you choose.

If you find these stories of women in public health inspiring, consider furthering your career in public health. Rivier University’s online MPH degree allows you to enhance your career as a public health policy leader and practitioner. One of the few fully online public health degree programs in the region, the program offers a flexible learning environment. Multiple term starts and competitive tuition rates are designed to help you start, and finish, faster.