10 Women in History Who Revolutionized Healthcare
Breaking barriers and redefining medicine for women
March is Women’s History Month, a time to remember the trailblazing women in history who redefined medicine for women today. These women challenged the status quo of their time and became some of the most influential individuals in medical history. From revolutionizing hygiene practices in hospitals to taking their care directly to patients, these women inspired generations of innovators after.
For a large part of history, women weren’t allowed to practice medicine. However, thanks in part to the group of women below, that sentiment has changed dramatically in the last 200 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, women made up 77.6% (16,446,000 women, 21,204,000 total) of employees in healthcare.
We have compiled a list of these revolutionary women and the massive impacts they made on the history of healthcare.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)
British and American physician, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree and the first woman on the Medical Register for the United Kingdom's General Medical Council.
Blackwell was born in Bristol, United Kingdom and moved to America with her family in 1832. In 1849, she graduated first in her class from the Geneva Medical College in New York.
Blackwell’s call to healthcare came from a dying friend who said her quality of care would have been better if she had a female physician. Unfortunately, there were few medical colleges at the time and none that accepted women. She was rejected everywhere she applied, until Geneve College sent her an acceptance letter, as a joke, and was ultimately admitted.
In 1857, Blackwell opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Her goal was to provide work for other women physicians struggling to find jobs in the male dominated field. She then opened a medical college for women, so others could follow in her footsteps. A true pioneer.
In her career she emphasized preventative care and personal hygiene in the workplace, something not common among physicians in that era of medicine. She later became a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women and founded the National Health Society.
Clara Barton (1821-1912)
Humanitarian Clara Barton earned the nickname ‘Angel of the Battlefield’ for providing nursing care and supplies to soldiers during the American Civil War. In 1881, she founded the American Red Cross and later established the National First Aid Association of America.
Barton was born in North Oxford, Massachusetts, her father Captain Stephen Barton, was a member of the local militia and a politician. He was her inspiration and instilled patriotism and a broad humanitarian interest.
In 1838, she started off her career as a teacher, but when the American Civil War began in 1861, she left her job and dedicated her time to tending the wounded. This started her life-long career in aiding those in need. She helped the homeless, the poor and those suffering from countless disasters before leaving her position at the Red Cross. Barton then focused on creating awareness of emergency preparedness and developed some of the first first-aid kits.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)
American physician, nurse and author, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, was the first and only African American woman to be accepted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston. In 1864, she also became the first Black woman in the United States to earn a medical degree.
Crumpler was born in Delaware and raised by her aunt who dedicated her time to caring for sick neighbors. Inspired by this, she chose to devote herself to caring for and helping others too. As she faced prejudice and racism, her strength and resilience prompted a turning point in history for Black women in medicine.
For eight years, she served under multiple doctors with no formal medical education. These doctors, inspired by her hard work and dedication, wrote letters commending her to the New England Female Medical College.
After the Civil War, she moved to Virginia where she joined other Black physicians caring for the freed slaves. While they still experienced intense racism, their work helped thousands. Crumpler later returned home to care for those in her neighborhood, like her aunt did, before ending her practice.
Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919)
Women’s rights advocate, prisoner of war and abolitionist, Mary Edwards Walker was the first U.S. Army female surgeon and the only woman to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor. Walker received the medal from President Andrew Johnson for her noble work during the Civil War.
Walker was born in Oswego, New York to abolitionists Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker. Her parents taught her the importance of education and to think freely. When Walker graduated from high school, she became a teacher, but she dreamt of becoming a doctor. After years of saving money, she finally obtained her medical degree.
After graduating from medical school, Walker married another medical school student, Albert Miller. Miller and Walker began their own medical practice together shortly after, but it failed due to negative sentiment toward women in medicine. The Civil War began and Walker wanted to join the Union’s efforts, but was turned away because of her gender.
She decided to serve as an unpaid volunteer, but could only serve as a nurse. It wasn’t until 1863 that her request to practice as a surgeon was accepted. Often crossing battle lines to care for soldiers and civilians, Walker was captured by confederate troops. After the war, Walker took to women’s rights and advocated for “dress reform”.
Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906)
American physician, educator and suffragist, Mary Putnam Jacobi was known for her work debunking myths about menstruation. Jacobi was the first woman accepted into the New York College of Pharmacy and l’École de Médecine in Paris.
Jacobi was born in London, England and raised in New York. Once completing her pharmacy education in 1863, she continued on to receive her medical degree from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She fought hard for her female peers and in 1872, she created the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women.
Throughout her career, Jacobi taught and wrote about pediatrics, pathology and neurology. She is well known for her argument against a Harvard professor’s book that argued exertion during menstruation was dangerous. Jacobi laid out her counter argument proving the stability of women’s strength during menstruation, including detailed data and information. It was this that won her Harvard’s Boylston Prize.
Susie King Taylor (1848-1912)
First Black Army nurse, Susie King Taylor not only tended to the wounded but taught many soldiers how to read. She was the first Black woman to publish a memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers.
Born into slavery, Taylor secretly attended school where she learned to read and write. She was able to escape during the Civil War and volunteered for the Army’s first Black regiment. After the war, she devoted much of her time to the Women’s Relief Corp, a national organization for female Civil War veterans.
There is little documentation of Taylor’s life after the war.
Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)
Reformer Susan La Flesche Picotte was the first Native American woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree.
Picotte was born on the Omaha Reservation. As a child, she watched a Native American woman die because the local white doctor refused treatment. This experience inspired her to study medicine so she could care for the people on the reservation.
Picotte attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and in1889, she earned her medical degree. Soon after she returned to the Omaha Reservation where she tended to patients across the reserve. In 1913, Picotte established a reservation hospital to provide its residents with increased access to care and medical technologies.
Margaret Higgins Sanger (1879-1966)
Birth control activist, sex educator and nurse, Margaret Higgins Sanger opened a clinic in 1923 that later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger later led the effort in what is now the modern birth control pill.
Sanger was born in Corning, New York. During this time, family planning and women’s healthcare was not discussed. Her own mother died at the age of 49 due to the strain of childbearing; she conceived 18 times, only to birth 11 alive.
Supported by her older sisters, Sanger attended Claverack College and Hudson River Institute in 1896. She then completed the White Plains Hospital nursing program in 1902. In 1916, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. and was arrested days laterSanger still continued her work.
In 1936, Sanger's efforts led to the legalization of prescription birth control. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Comstock laws finally ended.
Gerty Cori (1896-1957)
Czech and American biochemist and professor, Gerty Cori was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1947. Gerty and her husband Carl Cori researched carbohydrate metabolism, uncovering how glucose is metabolized in the body and spanning insulin production.
Gerty was born in Prague and met her husband Carl at the medical school of the Karl-Ferdinand's-Universität there. In 1920, the couple graduated and married. In 1922, Gerty and Carl decided to emigrate to the U.S. after completing their doctorates in medicine.
The Coris began their research at what is now the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. The director of the institute didn’t like Gerty working alongside her husband and threatened to dismiss her. Fortunately, Carl refused to continue the research without his wife and forced the Institute to keep her on.
The couple continued their research in carbohydrate metabolism publishing 50 papers. In 1929, they proposed the Cori cycle that would later win them the Nobel Prize.
Virginia Apgar (1909-1974)
American physician, anesthesiologist, surgeon and medical researcher, Virginia Apgar created a test to assess newborns’ health. The Apgar Score System is a standard part of labor and delivery to identify the required medical attention given to a newborn.
Apgar was born in Westfield, New Jersey. In 1933, she graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. The chairman of the university discouraged her from continuing in surgery and instead encouraged her to pursue anesthesiology.
Apgar decided to attend the University of Wisconsin and the United States’ first anesthesiology program. In 1937, she became the first female board-certified anesthesiologist. Apgar then continued her research at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S).
In 1949, Apgar became the first woman to be a full professor at P&S. It was there that she did the clinical research that led to the development of the Apgar Score System. The scoring system involves testing the color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone and respiration of a newborn one minute after birth.
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