Women’s History Month 2023 Spotlight Series

Recognizing historical women who have made lung health history
Annie Wauneka

Annie Wauneka

Annie Dodge Wauneka (1910-1997) was a Navajo public health advocate and tribal leader. She was born in Sawmill, Arizona and grew up on the Navajo Reservation. After graduating from high school, she worked as a teacher and translator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

In the 1950s, Wauneka became involved in public health advocacy on the Navajo Nation. She was concerned with the high rates of tuberculosis on the reservation and worked to raise awareness about the disease and its prevention. She traveled throughout the Navajo Nation, speaking to community members about the importance of vaccination, hygiene, and early detection of tuberculosis. 

In addition to her work on tuberculosis, she also advocated for improved access to healthcare and education for Navajo communities. She was the first woman to serve on the Navajo Tribal Council and was a strong advocate for women's rights and gender equality. 

Wauneka's work had a significant impact on public health outcomes on the Navajo Nation. By the 1960s, the rate of tuberculosis on the reservation had declined significantly, due in part to her efforts. She received numerous awards and honors for her work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. 

Donn Shimp holding up a shirt

Donna Shimp 

Mrs. Shimp (1963-2019) worked for New Jersey Bell Telephone Company (now Verizon) where she retired after 30 years in customer service. In 1976, Mrs. Shimp won a landmark lawsuit against her employer [Shimp v. New Jersey Bell Telephone Company, 145 N.J. Super. 516 (Ch. Div. 1976)], in which it was determined for the first time by any court that secondhand tobacco smoke is an occupational health hazard. 

The opinion in that case, has been used internationally as the rationale for protecting non-smokers from tobacco smoke in all shared air spaces. Mrs. Shimp, together with her late husband, her legal advisors, and former United States Surgeon General Luther L. Terry, M.D., established a non-profit volunteer organization to disseminate the lawsuit information and focus national attention on the serious hazards of second-hand tobacco smoke. 

That organization, Environmental Improvement Associates, of which Mrs. Shimp was Executive Director, was a driving force in bringing smokefree workplace policies to the forefront of public health issues. The records of these pioneering efforts have been preserved in the Tobacco Control Archives of the University of California, San Francisco. For many years Mrs. Shimp was a consultant to the American Lung Association and other public health groups. 

Hazel Johnson

Hazel Johnson

Hazel Johnson (1935-2011) was an environmental activist and founder of People for Community Recovery (PCR), a non-profit environmental organization in Altgeld Gardens on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. Termed “Mother of Environmental Justice Movement”, Hazel spread awareness of the environmental hazards of landfills, industrial buildings and treatment plants in Chicago and advocated for environmental justice nationwide.   

In the 1970s, after Hazel’s husband died from lung cancer, she found that her children and many neighbors were suffering from respiratory illnesses. After further research of the environmental conditions of her neighborhood, she founded PCR to fight against environmental racism and for clean air and water. Over the next few decades, Hazel led PCR in securing victories such as asbestos removal, lead abatement and implementing more health clinics. In 1991, Hazel presented at the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit where she worked with peers nation-wide to create the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, a guide still used by organizations today.  

Hazel received many awards for her work and was invited to witness the signing of Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. Today, Hazel’s daughter, Cheryl Johnson, serves as the Executive Director of PCR to continue fighting for environmental justice. 

Ruth Kirschtein

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, M.D.

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein (1926-2009) was a physician and scientist who had a 50 year long career at the National Institutes of Health. She was the first woman to lead an NIH institute and also served as Deupty Director and acting Director of the NIH at various points during her career. During her tenure, she oversaw the development of new treatments for lung diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She was a strong advocate for increasing the representation of women and minorities in science and was instrumental in the development of several important NIH policies aimed at addressing gender and minority disparities in biomedical research. 

In recognition of her significant contributions to the field of biomedical research and science policy, the NIH established the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award in her honor. The award provides funding to support research training for individuals at various stages of their careers in biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research. 

Dr. Dorothy Anderson, MD

Dr. Mary Amdur, PhD

Dr. Mary Amdur (1921-1998), also known as the “mother of air pollution toxicology”, received her PhD in biochemistry from Cornell University in 1946. Her interest in air pollution peaked after the Donora smog of 1948 when an impenetrable smog surrounded towns in Pennsylvania. The smog caused residents to develop numerous health conditions and even some casualties among locals. After this event, Mary Amdur researched how the particles and gases in smog affected the lungs of humans with funding under the American Smelting and Refining Company. The company hoped the research would find that sulfuric acid minimally contributed to the health effects in the Donora smog and that they were not to blame. 

However, Dr. Amdur’s findings determined the opposite and were met with severe criticism by the smelter industries. Although her research was met with controversy, Dr. Amdur persisted and continued to develop models to study how these gasses interacted with other particles in the respiratory tract of mammals.  

Her research influenced amendments to the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Air Quality Act of 1967. Later in her career she served on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Air Act Scientific Advisory Committee as well as committees at the National Institute of Health and Occupational Safety and Health Administration 

Page last updated: February 28, 2023

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