International Women’s Day is a chance to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of women around the world and to recognise the remaining challenges in gender equality.

One major hurdle is that the achievements of women can be frustratingly hard to find online, particularly on Wikipedia. According to the Wikimedia Foundation, less than 1 in 5 Wikipedia biographies feature women. This means that countless women scientists, artists and activists are missing from one of the world’s most popular websites.

We want to change that. Yesterday, we held a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, where we wrote and updated pages about prominent women in cancer research.

And Dr Jess Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London who has spent the last year creating Wikipedia pages for women in science, has been on hand to help.

“I’m on around 510 so far. It’s been an adventure,” says Wade.

She credits her interest in Wikipedia in part to Angela Sanai’s book, Inferior. The book examines research into differences between men and women and throws the door open to a lot of bad science.

“As a woman scientist it got me angry that there was bias against women, but then also just as a scientist it got me angry that there was bias at all. The book was super inspirational for me.”

Wade also met Alice White, a historian of science who works as the Wikimedian in residence at the Wellcome Collection in London, who got her started on the encyclopaedia site.

“She taught me how horrendously biased Wikipedia was and then how to edit it.”

One of the 510 researchers who stuck with Wade was Gladys West.

“Gladys was born in the 1920s and she did some of the early maths for GPS technologies. She was really instrumental, really early in her career, at a time when there weren’t many women or African American people working in that field. She was just really cool. I like the story as well because it’s evolved since I made the page.”

Gladys has now become Dr West, after receiving her PhD by distance learning from Virginia Tech at the age of 88.

Wade’s message for budding Wikipedia editors is simple. “Don’t be frightened. Find someone who has had a big enough impact as a scientist to fulfil the Wikipedia notability criteria and start researching. It’s not that hard once you get going”

She suggests looking at lists of scientists who have just won big awards or published papers that end up in the public domain. That way you’re more likely to find someone who will be accepted onto Wikipedia.

Here are 3 cancer scientists that were missing from Wikipedia. And we’ve starting to create pages for them.

Dr Anne Szarewski

A photo of Dr Anne Szarewski

Dr Anne Szarewski

Anne Szarewski was a doctor who helped improve how cervical screening samples are tested and was involved in developing the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

She was born in 1959 and studied medicine at London’s Middlesex Hospital, graduating in 1982. After working at a few London hospitals, she joined the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, one of the forerunners of Cancer Research UK, in 1992 as a clinical research fellow.

There’s a lot to say about Szarewski’s career, but a landmark study showing that testing for HPV in cells taken during cervical screening could pick up pre-cancers that were missed by the routine test is a standout.

She also played a role in HPV vaccine research, becoming the lead investigator on the team who developed the first vaccine. It was approved in the EU in 2007 and was used in the UK when the government first introduced routine HPV vaccination for girls in 2009. She was a vocal advocate for the vaccine to be given to boys as well as girls.

Anne died in 2013, 5 days before her 54th birthday. You can read more about her on her newly-created Wikipedia page.

Dr Vivian Li

A photo of Dr Vivian Li

Dr Vivian Li

Vivian Li leads a research team at the Francis Crick Institute in London, where she studies how bowel cancer develops.

She completed her PhD in pathology at the University of Hong Kong in 2008, winning the Gold Medal Prize for her work. Her project looked at how the human intestine develops from specialised stem cells and how this process links to bowel cancer. It’s a topic she’s pursued ever since.

Her research focuses on how signals inside stem cells – called Wnt signals – keep the cells growing and dividing properly. But too much signalling through Wnt can cause stem cells to grow too rapidly and form a tumour.

Li relocated to the Francis Crick Institute in 2015 where she started using clusters of cells called organoids (or ‘mini guts’) to study stem cell behaviour.

By editing the DNA of the mini guts, Li and her team discovered a new way that Wnt is activated in bowel cancer.

Li’s innovative work is just one of the reasons we awarded her the 2018 Future Leaders in Cancer Research Prize. The prize recognises scientists who have produced research of international importance within 10 years of receiving their PhD.

You can read more about Vivian Li on her new Wikipedia page.

Professor Ruth Plummer

A photo of Professor Ruth Plummer

Professor Ruth Plummer

Ruth Plummer is an oncologist who specialises in treating patients with melanoma. She’s based in Newcastle, where she also directs the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre, a busy unit specialising in early-stage clinical trials.

Plummer studied medicine and completed a PhD at Cambridge and Oxford University before moving back to Newcastle.

A standout example of her work in clinical trials is a type of drug called a PARP inhibitor. These drugs stop cells from repairing damage to their DNA, which can help tip cancer cells over the edge and cause them to die.

In 2003, Plummer wrote a prescription for the first patient in the world to be treated with a PARP inhibitor, called rucaparib (Rubraca).

Following successful clinical trials, the US drug approvals agency fast-tracked rucaparib to treat some women with advanced ovarian cancer in 2016. The drug was also given a conditional licence in the EU in 2018. Another PARP inhibitor, called olaparib (Lynparza), is available on the NHS for some women with ovarian cancer. We blogged about it’s journey to the clinic.

Plummer was awarded a prestigious fellowship from the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2018 for her outstanding contribution to experimental cancer medicine. And we recognised her amazing work on PARP inhibitors with a Translational Cancer Research prize in 2017.

You can read more about Ruth Plummer on her newly-created Wikipedia page.

The editing bug

In our lunchtime edit-a-thon we updated and created 5 Wikipedia pages. And for a lot of us it felt like the start of an illustrious editing career. And we hope this spreads the word about women who deserve credit for directly contributing to our understanding of cancer.

Here are the pages we’ve created or updated so far:

  • Thea Tlsty – involved in the discovery of cells that may be at the origin of an invasive form of breast cancer, called metaplastic cancer.
  • Anna Perdrix-Rosell – co-founded a biotech company while studying for her PhD in cancer cell signalling.
  • Charis Eng – helped identify a molecule called PTEN, which helps to stop cancer developing.
  • Caroline Dive – works on liquid biopsies that use biomarkers in the blood to detect and monitor cancer.
  • Rebecca Fitzgerald – developed a new test called Cytosponge that detects Barrett’s oesophagus, a precursor to oesophageal cancer.
  • Guillermina Lozano – helped to under the function of a molecule called p53, which helps to stop cancer developing.
  • Anne Szarewski – improved how cervical screening samples are tested and helped to develop the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine.
  • Ruth Plummer – led early clinical trials into a new type of drug called a PARP inhibitor.
  • Vivian Li – discovered a new way that a signalling pathway called Wnt is activated in bowel cancer.


11/03 correction – figure in the second paragraph was corrected from less than 1 in 20 to 1 in 5 biographies on Wikipedia are about women.