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98-year-old Cheltenham woman, who helped develop polio vaccine, shares her scientific, athletic and business achievements for International Women’s Day

South African Doreen Wedderburn, aged 98, has shared details of her remarkable achievements in the fields of science, sport and business for International Women’s Day (8 March). Doreen moved into Windsor Street Care Centre, Cheltenham, an Orders of St John Care Trust (OSJCT) care home, in November 2021.

Doreen pursued her passion for science by gaining a degree in microbiology at Cape Town University. She then worked in the field of vaccinations and was involved in the development of the polio vaccine. Doreen’s dedication to science was influenced by her great grandfather, William Lister, a British physician who also worked with vaccines. She spent many years working in the laboratory, conducting research and experiments that helped to improve the effectiveness and safety of vaccines.

Born in Johannesburg, Doreen had a keen interest in politics and was an active member of the African National Congress (ANC) during the apartheid era. She believed in the power of education and worked hard to promote literacy and education among disadvantaged communities in South Africa.

As a young woman, Doreen was also a talented athlete. She represented South Africa in tennis, competing at Wimbledon during the 1950s.

Beata Beevor, Activities Coordinator at the care home said: “I have huge admiration for Doreen and her path as a trailblazer in science, sport and business. It’s wonderful to sit with Doreen and hear about her experiences. Her talent, determination and hard work played a big part in the path she took, breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes at a time when it was not easy for women to succeed in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Doreen is a source of inspiration for women everywhere, proving that with hard work and passion anything is possible.

In an extract from her autobiography ‘Memoirs of a Charmed Life’, written in her mid-80s, Doreen said: “I am astonished at how the world has changed since I was born in 1925.   There are inventions that we now take for granted but which were unheard of when I was a child. Penicillin and the other antibiotics that have revolutionised contemporary medicine were not readily available until after the war.

Men and women of all social classes wore hats when going about their daily business, and it was unknown for women to wear trousers. Even in 1972, when I moved from the research laboratories to Unilever House, women were not allowed to wear trouser suits at work. Rules about what to wear and when are now almost non-existent.

“These are only a few of the social and cultural changes that have taken place in my lifetime. Some have certainly been for the better, but whether they have contributed to the sum of human happiness I cannot judge.

Doreen was employed by the global product company Unilever where she worked on many successful projects. She said: “In 1964 I was promoted to Manager of The Assessment Division. This was a huge step, being the first woman Divisional Manager in Unilever’s research empire.

During the rise of the feminist movement Doreen attended the International Chamber of Commerce’s triennial conference in Orlando, Florida 1978, where she chaired a session titled: Women in an Entrepreneurial Society. Speaking about her time as a businesswoman and pressure to join a feminist group, Doreen reflected: “I had never experienced any obvious discrimination in my work either as a scientist or as an adviser to the Board. I had always believed that militancy in these delicate matters would be counterproductive.

Doreen’s legacy is a testament to her perseverance and dedication. She was passionate about her work and broke new ground in the fields of microbiology and athletics. Doreen’s work continues to inspire generations of scientists and athletes.

To find out more about life at Windsor Street Care Centre, Cheltenham, or make an enquiry visit Windsor Street Care Centre | Care Home in Cheltenham | OSJCT.

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