All around the world, scientists and medical professionals are currently scrambling not just to contain and minimize the spread of the coronavirus, but to find ways to cure it. In such a terrifying situation, it feels fitting that Wednesday’s Google Doodle honors the birthday of Dame Jean Macnamara, an Australian doctor and medical innovator who, in the first half of the 20th century, became an instrumental figure in the battle against polio.
After graduating from medical school in Melbourne in 1925, Macnamara was immediately confronted with the monumental crisis of a polio epidemic, and spent the next couple of years working diligently for the Poliomyelitis Committee of Victoria. In 1931, alongside colleague Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Macnamara discovered that there was more than one strain of polio, a revelation that was crucial to the eventual development of a vaccine.
Thomas Campi, the Sydney-based artist who was tasked with creating an illustration befitting of Macnamara for the Google Doodle, told Google that his approach was based in both realistic research and deliberate abstraction. “I then started to look for photographic references about her, but also that specific time, hospitals, medical equipment, clothing, hairstyle, and of course about people with polio,” Campi said. “All these materials were an inspiration filtered through my final intention, which was giving hope to people and passion for research, with a hint of surrealism and Magritte-ish concept.”
When Macnamara got her first job out of medical school at a children’s hospital, it was something of a close shave: the hospital had been reluctant to employ her initially, due to the fact that it had no toilet facilities for women at the time. It’s absurd, sexist technicalities such as these that illustrate just how destructive antiquated societal ideas are: if Macnamara had never been permitted to pursue her studies as a doctor, she might never have made the medical discovery that eventually had a hand in saving the lives of millions.