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Vivian Xie
13 Feb 2023

Gender equity in pharma - celebrating historic women in pharma

As we continue to celebrate the contributions of women in the pharmaceutical field following International Day of Women and Girls in Science and in the lead up to International Women’s Day on March 8, 2023, we take a look at some of the historic pharmaceutical innovations and leadership milestones from women. 

American biochemist and pharmacologist Gertrude Elion joined Burroughs–Wellcome (now GSK) in 1944 working in cancer research. During her tenure, she and her team developed the anti-cancer drugs tioguanine and mercaptopurine for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia, and acute promyelocytic leukemia, amongst others [i]. In 1978, Elion developed a class of antiviral drugs that more accurately killed a virus without harming health cells. She received the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George H. Hitchins and Sir James Black for innovative drug development techniques known as rational drug design in which biochemical and metabolic differences between human cells and pathogens are targeted [ii]. 

Frances Oldham Kelsey took a solid stance against rising pressure from pharmaceutical manufacturers in the 60s when thalidomide was reported to cause birth defects in the children of women who ahd taken the drug in Europe. On top of a lack of clinical evidence to support the drug’s safety claims, Kelsey withheld approval in a move that would ultimately prevent further physical deformities in infants. Her resolution to remain firm shaped the FDA’s regulatory procedures, and she was appointed Deputy for scientific and medical affairs for the FDA’s CDER in 1995 [ii]. 

CEO of GSK Emma Walmsley is the first female CEO of a top 10 pharmaceutical company, where she has replaced 50 of GSK’s top 125 managers in a bid to increase diversity across the board since 2017 [iii]. With business and management experience in the pharmaceutical and consumer products industries, Emma is also a member of the GSK Leadership Team and President and CEO of GSK Consumer Healthcare [i]. In 2020 she was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to the pharmaceutical industry and business. 

Heather Bresch similarly has held the rank of CEO of Mylan since 2021, becoming the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company. Various pharmaceutical pricing controversies have plagued the company, such as in 2016 when the EpiPen saw a 400% price hike. While Bresch stated the new pen design was superior, she pushed for the company to introduce another generic pen for half the price. She has also been a trailblazer in lobbying for increased transparency with regards to pharmaceutical pricing. In 2011, she was recognised by Esquire for her role in pushing forward the FDA’s Safety and Innovation Act [i]. 

[i] Trailblazing Women in Pharma History | Pharma Manufacturing 

[ii] Women in the Pharmaceutical Sciences: Honoring Our Pioneers | SpringerLink 

[iii] Glaxo CEO Replaced 50 Top Managers in Shakeup to Spur Growth - Bloomberg 

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