Washington University School of Medicine-St. Louis
Becker Medical Library
Women in Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine

Helen Tredway Graham
Helen Tredway Graham
“Graham was deeply committed to encouraging women in science.”

Helen Tredway Graham was born July 21, 1890, in Dubuque, Iowa. She was first in her class in high school and received a four-year full scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, where she graduated summa cum laude. After a year studying in Germany, she returned to the United States and earned her doctorate in chemistry from the University of Chicago (1915). She was the only woman in her chemistry classes and the only woman to get a doctorate in any subject that year.

Graham conducted research on nerve physiology early in her career. At age 60, she switched her research interests to study histamine. She discovered its function in mast cells and developed sensitive methods for its measurement.

Graham’s academic appointments began in 1918 at the Johns Hopkins University, where she was an assistant in the Department of Pharmacology. In 1926 she joined Washington University School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology as an instructor. She was promoted to assistant professor in 1931. She became an associate professor in 1937, a position she held for the next 17 years. At the age of 64, she was promoted to professor. Five years later, she retired to become professor emerita.



Department of Pharamcology picnic, 1951
Helen Graham at a Department of Pharmacology picnic, 1951

After earning her Ph.D. Helen Tredway Graham married Evarts Graham, a young surgeon, and adapted her career to fit his. This led her to Baltimore, where she worked with John Able, M.D. Dubbed by his contemporaries as the “Father of Modern Pharmacology,” Able is quoted as saying that although “most women weren’t suited for science, the exception was Dr. Helen Tredway Graham.” He went on to say that “she was probably equal to if not greater than any man in his lab.”

Helen Graham, Gerty Cori and Evarts Graham on holiday
Helen Graham, Gerty Cori, and Evarts Graham on holiday

Colleagues describe Helen Tredway Graham as an intellectually gifted woman, easily the peer of Joseph Erlanger and Herbert Gasser, with whom she worked closely when she first came to St. Louis. Erlanger and Gasser later won the Nobel Prize for studies on nerve conduction.

Graham was deeply committed to encouraging women in science. To this end, she served as national president of the American Association of University Women. In this position she spearheaded a fundraising drive that collected $1 million (in 1926) for scholarships for women in science. She was also the founding member of the St. Louis Civil Rights Committee, highly involved with the suffragettes’ movement and a tireless civic leader.

Despite these activities, her time in the lab remained her priority. Just before she died, she refused a lunch invitation, saying “I just can’t afford to take so much time away from the lab in the middle of the day.”