March is Women’s History Month, and to honor this month, we are proud to celebrate a few of the women who have influenced the medical field, and who, in our opinion, are not spoken about enough. Many women have made huge contributions to U.S. medical history, from the first women to receive medical degrees, to others who have made discoveries in, or contributed useful inventions to, the medical and surgical field.
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to be awarded a medical degree. She first trained as a midwife, and then worked for several years in Europe before she returned to New York City to practice medicine. Unfortunately, no one wanted to hire her because she was a woman, so, instead, she opened up her dispensary in a rented room of a house.
In 1857, Blackwell opened up the New York Infirmary, which focused on caring for the poor, as well as training women to become doctors – training that they could not get at male-dominated hospitals.
Blackwell also made regular trips to Europe, establishing the first British medical school for women in 1874, allowing more women to follow in her footsteps and pursue their passion for medicine.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler
In 1864, Rebecca Crumpler became the first African American woman to earn a medical degree and become a doctor in the U.S. She later published a book of medical discourses that discussed her career and the field of family medicine, making her one of the first people of color to publish in the medical field.
Susan La Flesche Picotte
Susan Picotte was the first Native American woman in the United States to get a medical degree, which she received in 1889 from the women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. After she received her degree, she returned home to the Omaha Reservation and cared for members of her tribe, at the same time giving them financial, legal, and spiritual guidance. She did all of this while she was battling a terminal illness.
Virginia Apgar was the first woman to become a professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. In 1952, Apgar developed the Apgar score, which uses simple measurements to alert doctors to the need for medical intervention in the first minutes of an infant’s life. The Apgar test is still used in hospitals today.
M. Joycelyn Elders
Jocelyn Elders was the first female board-certified pediatric endocrinologist in Arkansas, where she researched juvenile diabetes, and later went on to become the head of the Arkansas Health Department. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her the U.S. Surgeon General, making her the first African American doctor and the second woman to hold the position. Her campaign to increase access to family planning and to distribute contraceptives in schools was met with a lot of backlash, which led her to resign after just 15 months in her post.
Patricia E. Bath
Patricia Bath was the first African American doctor to complete a residency in ophthalmology at New York University. Soon after, she became the first female ophthalmologist and went on to invent a device that helps remove cataracts from the eye, called the LaserPhaco probe, which helped restore the vision of people all over the world. Her invention made her the first African American woman to receive a medical patent.
Mary Steichen Calderone
Mary Calderon was a legendary physician and advocate for sexual health and education, as well as an inspiration to many women who dreamed of pursuing a career: Calderone didn’t enter medical school until she was thirty years old and already had children. After she got her Masters in public health from Columbia University, she became the medical director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She was a tireless advocate for educating people about safe sex and empowering them with the tools to have healthy, happy sex lives.
Margaret Higgins Sanger
Margaret Sanger is often considered the reason we have access to birth control. She advocated for safe and effective birth control at a time when it was not easy to do so, but she continued pushing for access to family planning options, opening up the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916. Nine days after she opened the clinic, she was arrested – but she continued to fight for women to have access to birth control, and went on to develop what became one of the first oral contraceptives, Enovid.
Marie Curie, working with her husband, discovered the elements polonium and radium. The discovery of these chemical elements paved the way for the X-ray, which helped doctors make diagnoses without surgery, as well as led to the development of radiation therapy for cancer. She is the only woman to win two Nobel prizes, one for physics in 1903 and one for chemistry in 1911.
When Gertrude Elion was 15, her grandfather died of cancer, which led her to dedicate her life to finding a cure for that disease. She became a pharmacologist and biochemist, who, along with her research team, received 45 patents for drugs, including drugs to fight AIDS, leukemia, and herpes, as well as therapies that help reduce the rejection of foreign tissue in kidney transplants. She was awarded a shared Nobel Prize for her innovation in the field of pharmacology.
Barré-Sinoussi, and her colleague Luc Montaigner, discovered that HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. Their research revealed that HIV attacks lymphocytes, an important part of the body’s immune system.
These remarkable women are just a few of the many women who have made an impact on medicine around the world. Although women have dealt with discrimination and sexism throughout the years, it has not stopped them from pursuing their passions, becoming some of the most influential medical professionals in the world, and contributing to advancements in healthcare, sexual health, and the treatment of diseases. This Women’s History Month, let’s all honor the achievements and contributions that these women have made to medical science and research!
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