I recently read an NPR news article about Mary Guinan, one of the world’s first female epidemiologists’ to concentrate on smallpox eradication and sexually transmitted diseases. Guinan graduated medical school in 1974 as the only female physician in a class of 39. Post-graduation, Guinan didn’t have any solid plans, at least not until she read about job openings for epidemiologists’ in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to eradicate smallpox from the face of Earth.
Guinan applied to the program and quickly heard back that she had been rejected because she was a woman. As we learned in class, Guinan was probably denied due to her placement in the gender hierarchy. The gender hierarchy are the ways that gendered activities and attributes are valued in prestige and power – in this case the fact that epidemiology was a male dominated job. Guinan was furious to hear that the reason she was denied was merely due to her gender, so she reapplied and threatened the heads of the program. She was then told that it wasn’t the World Health Organization (WHO) or the CDC keeping women out of the program, it was India, their main site for eradication. Guinan threatened to call India’s female Prime Minister to inquire, but then suddenly Guinan heard back from the CDC and WHO that she was accepted into the program. Guinan was able to fight back against the sexist profession to do what she loved.
Once in India, Guinan was able to travel to very remote areas meet women who had never seen a foreign woman before. She would converse with them though the aid of an interpreter and describe the smallpox vaccination. Though Guinan wasn’t a medical anthropologist by label, she could very well be considered one. As we spoke of in class, a medical anthropologist is defined as a medical physician who tries to understand how social, cultural, biological and linguistic factors shape the heath of humans. Guinan had to navigate being a foreign woman amongst men to speak with native, uneducated women to help them understand what she was trying to achieve with her vaccine while navigating the cultural and social terms set by the native woman’s lifestyles.
Mary Guinan was a leading individual in the smallpox eradication program in the 1970’s against all efforts by the CDC and WHO to keep her out. Guinan opened doors for other females to fight for what they want, no matter their gender. Though Guinan wasn’t a medical anthropologist by label, she fits all the definition and deserves to be recognized as a leader in fighting sexism and disease in society.