Women’s History Month: changemakers in the cancer field

By Samantha Puckorius

This Women’s History Month, we are honoring the lives, achievements and stories of women who have revolutionized cancer prevention, care and treatment. These doctors are just four of the many women who have made great contributions to the scientific and medical fields:


Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Dr. Elise Depew Strang L’Esperance

A pioneer in medicine, Dr. L’Esperance went on to establish the preventive model of cancer treatment after graduating from the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1899. Originally working as a pediatrician, Dr. L’Esperance switched to medical research after becoming frustrated with treating patients who had diseases with no known cure.

After her mother died of cancer, Dr. L’Esperance founded the Kate Depew Strang Tumor Clinic (now known as the Strang Cancer Prevention Center) in New York City in 1932 and the Kate Depew Strang Cancer Prevention Clinic in 1937. The Strang Prevention Clinic was revolutionary. The clinic was the first of its kind in the U.S. to conduct complete physical examinations of women to detect cancer, and it was the first to introduce the Pap test into clinical practice. By 1947, 181 clinics were opened nationwide by others using the Strang model.

After leading the Strang Prevention Clinic for nearly 20 years, Dr. L’Esperance was appointed Professor of Preventive Medicine at Cornell University Medical College in 1950. In 1951, she was co-awarded the Lasker Award for her work in preventive medicine; along with her fellow award winner, she was one of the first women to receive this accolade.

Dr. Janet Rowley

Photo credit: Associated Press

Dr. Janet Rowley’s discoveries altered what we know about cancer and how we treat it. Early in her career, she worked with children with developmental disabilities, some of which were caused by chromosomal irregularities.

Through her research, Dr. Rowley discovered the existence of chromosome translocations in specific forms of leukemia and lymphoma. As a result of translocations, the genes that regulate cell growth and division are no longer in their normal position, allowing the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells. Dr. Rowley proved for the first time that cancer is caused by a change in one’s chromosomes. Her work affected the approach of personalized cancer care and targeted therapies and aided in the development of new medications.

By 1990, more than 70 translocations had been linked to other cancers by researchers around the world. Dr. Rowley’s impact was recognized at the highest level: in 2009, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Dr. Edith Mitchell

Dr. Mitchell receiving the Laurels Award for National Leadership at the 2022 Prevent Cancer Dialogue.

Dr. Edith Mitchell has been guided by a mission to make a difference. Dr. Mitchell earned her bachelor of science degree from Tennessee State University and attended Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School, where she was the only Black female student. While in medical school, Dr. Mitchell joined the Air Force and served for 36 years. Dr. Mitchell eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General before she retired—the first female doctor to ever hold that rank in the history of the Air Force.  

After retiring from military service, Dr. Mitchell joined the faculty at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University and became the associate director of Diversity Programs for the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. She specializes in gastrointestinal oncology and proved that younger patients with colorectal cancer were more likely to survive than patients 50 and older. She has also focused much of her research on barriers to minority participation in clinical trials. In 2012, Dr. Mitchell established the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center and has spent her medical career helping individuals in medically underserved areas and researching barriers to minority participation in clinical trials. 

Today, Dr. Mitchell is the enterprise vice president for cancer disparities at Jefferson Health’s Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, a Clinical Professor of Medicine and Medical Oncology at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University, and the Associate Director for Diversity Programs. In recognition of her work towards health equity, the Prevent Cancer Foundation awarded Dr. Mitchell the Laurels Award for National Leadership at the 2022 Prevent Cancer Dialogue. She also is a part of President Biden’s re-ignited Cancer Moonshot, serving as a member of the President’s Cancer Panel.  

Dr. Monica Bertagnolli

Photo credit: National Cancer Institute

Dr. Monica Bertagnolli grew up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, and graduated from Princeton University with a degree in biochemical engineering before attending medical school at the University of Utah at a time when medicine was still very much a male-dominated field. In 1994, she became an associate surgeon at the Strang Cancer Prevention Center, and in 1999, she joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School. As a relatively junior researcher, Dr. Bertagnolli received funding from the Prevent Cancer Foundation to support young researchers in her lab.  

Dr. Bertagnolli is a highly skilled surgical oncologist and researcher. She specializes in gastrointestinal and sarcoma cancers and was the first woman to be Chief of Surgical Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Dr. Bertagnolli also advocates for and conducts outreach to rural communities, working to create inclusive and relevant programs, such as increasing involvement in clinical trials.   

In July 2022, Dr. Bertagnolli was appointed by President Biden as director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and is the first woman to hold this position. As director, she is responsible for the largest agency in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) focused on funding cancer research in the U.S. She joins NCI from Harvard Medical School, where she was the Richard E. Wilson Professor of Surgery. Prior to being appointed director of the NCI, Dr. Bertagnolli was elected to the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s board of directors in January 2022.1


While long excluded from the medical field, women have always contributed to and made discoveries that have saved lives and revolutionized medicine. The work of women like Drs. Elise L’Esperance, Janet Rowley, Edith Mitchell and Monica Bertagnolli has forever altered how we treat and prevent cancer, creating better outcomes for all.


1In order to accept her position as NCI director, Dr. Bertagnolli had to resign from all board positions.