Trailblazers, innovators and wartime heroines
Women have been making their mark in medicine for centuries
Women have made significant contributions to the field of medicine throughout our history, often despite discrimination and adversity. In honor of Women’s History Month in March, here are 10 extraordinary women whose contributions to science and medicine have saved lives and continue to inspire people around the world.
For centuries, the options for women who were interested in medicine were limited to midwifery and herbal medicine. But that changed in the 1700s when activists began pushing for health and safety reforms in prisons and hospitals. Working with local governments, they opened nursing schools to train a new workforce that would help introduce their reforms. Seeing an opportunity, women enrolled with the goal of becoming nurses.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) took nursing to the next level. Born in Italy and raised in England, she reorganized British army hospitals during the Crimean War, fundamentally changed the role of nurses in hospitals and reformed hospital sanitation methods. Nightingale also founded the International Red Cross.
On the other side of the pond was American nurse Clara Barton (1821-1912), who gained fame as a battle field nurse during the American Civil War. Later she learned about the International Red Cross and worked tirelessly to create a similar organization in the United States. The American Red Cross began in 1881, and she served as president for its first 23 years, never receiving a salary.
First female medical school graduates
Barred from medical schools and unable to gain professional licenses, women who wanted to become doctors had to get creative. Very creative: in the 1800s, a British woman named Margaret Bulkley masqueraded as a male army doctor for 46 years.
Two trailblazers—Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in England and Elizabeth Blackwell in the U.S.—were the first women to graduate from medical school in their respective countries. It almost didn’t happen for Blackwell: the all-male student body at Geneva Medical College only accepted her “as a joke.” She later went on to open the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
Women have been advancing scientific medicine for centuries, but they lacked training opportunities. That changed in the 19th and 20th centuries as women’s colleges offered a new path for women to become scientists.
Perhaps the most famous was Dr. Marie Curie (1867-1934), who became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in physics), an honor she shared with her husband and fellow researcher, Pierre. The Polish-born physicist and chemist pioneered research on radioactivity. She later won a Nobel Prize in chemistry on her own.
Another trailblazer was Dr. Gerty Cori (1896-1957), whose research helped lead to viable treatment options for diabetes. Dr. Cori was the first American woman to earn a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947.
Innovators in medical care
As more women became physicians and scientists, they made groundbreaking discoveries in medicine. A few notable innovators include:
- Helen Brooke Taussig (1898-1986) helped pioneer the specialty of pediatric cardiology. She also was the first president of the American Heart Association.
- Virginia Apgar (1909-1974) created the Apgar score, which has become the gold standard for evaluating the health of newborns.
- Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) was a pioneer in the study of death, dying and grief. Her book, “On Death and Dying,” became a standard resource for healthcare professionals with terminally ill patients.
- Audrey Evans (1925-) is a pediatric cancer specialist who pioneered the study and treatment of childhood cancers. She also played a significant role in creating the original Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia.
Today the vast majority of nurses are women, and female doctors work in every subspecialty of medicine. Women lead research labs, serve in health-related roles in the military and serve as leaders in medical schools, hospitals, academic medical centers, health insurance companies, health advocacy groups and many other healthcare organizations. They work at the highest levels of government in health-related roles, too—of the 20 surgeons general in our nation’s history, five have been women.
Most importantly, women in medicine contribute their unique expertise to improve lives around the world. As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, we’d like to take a moment to thank all of the strong, dedicated women who have made a difference throughout the 170-year history of Roper St. Francis Healthcare. Their hard work and dedication continue to inspire and make our community a better place.