Insights on the Importance and Politics of Research

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‘Something that I knew I really would like… to be in the middle of all the research’

Florence Pat Haseltine, Ph.D., M.D., is a molecular biologist, obstetrician/gynecologist and staunch advocate for research that leads to a healthier population.

In 1985, she took a job as Director of the Center for Population Research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.

“So I thought going to work for the government for a few years—and it turned out more than a few—would be valuable,” she recalls. “And also it was doing something that I knew I really would like to do, which is be in the middle of all the research.”

Dr. Haseltine held the post for 27 years, until 2012. In 1990, she co-founded the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR), a national non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, and a leader in promoting research on biological differences in disease.

SWHR is dedicated to advancing women’s health through science, advocacy, and education and was a pioneer in advocating for the policy of including women in clinical trials.

The debate became public in 1995 when an article that was on the cover of Nature depicted a male brain and a female brain doing the same task, a reading exercise.

“All of the men lit up the their left side of their brain and all of the women lit up the left side of the brain when doing a certain task, sort of in the temporal lobe area, right above and in front of the ear,” she says. “And what they showed was that everybody used the same thing. But that in 50 percent of women, it lit up the right side of the brain as well.”

The article inspired Dr. Haseltine to think back to her days as a student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“There was a type of stroke that men and women would get, and they’d [have difficulty] speaking, but half the women would recover, but the men wouldn’t recover,” she recalls. “So that was so dramatic to me that they found a difference that might explain some of the pathology that we saw. That alone was important.”

Her book “Women’s Health Research: a Medical and Policy Primer” was published in 1997. She reflects on the politics of health care and how engaging decision makers often results in action.

For example, in medical and research circles, there was concern about doing something about fibroids.

“Fibroids are very common. They cause a lot of bleeding, a lot of hysterectomies, a lot of surgery,” she says.

But nothing got done until one of the women in the Inspector’s Office on the Hill had fibroids and called for information.

“She was now undergoing her third operation. And I said, ‘We have no research in fibroids. Can we do something about that?’” Dr. Haseltine remembers. “And she helped write legislation to get some of that done.”

This story is taken from the oral history of Florence Haseltine, PhD. The full oral history is available here as part of the Foundation’s exhibit at the The Countway Library of Medicine, through our partnership with the The Archives for Women in Medicine.

Alicia Lazzaro