There’s no doubt about it: We women are a powerful force! Despite an extensive history that’s belittled our ambitions, we’ve persevered to become politicians, lawyers, activists, teachers, leaders in the field of medicine—all in addition to the job of motherhood (yes, it’s very much a job, but an incredibly fulfilling one!). In my life’s work I’ve been inspired by so many women who came before me, so in honor of International Women’s Day, I wanted to share love for some of the brilliant women who shaped the face of the field I’m a part of, medicine, and paved the way for doctors like me to continue making changes that enhance the lives of women, men and children around the world.
To go way back in history, we have to start with Metrodora, a Greek female physician who wrote the oldest medical text known to have ever been written by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women. It was considered to be widely used by many leading physicians at the time, as it was copied and translated well into the medieval period. Interesting fact: While Metrodora almost never made it into the history books, her work surely would have! Cited bibliographic reference within her text at one point named her Cleopatra, the famous queen, but thankfully folks got the record straight and credited her as deserved.
Known as “the lady with the lamp,” Florence Nightingale is essentially the founder of modern nursing. Though her family completely opposed her ambitions of becoming a nurse, she pursued her passion and enrolled as a nursing student in Germany in 1851. When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, she volunteered to train 38 other nurses and, together with them, worked tirelessly on her feet for 20 hours a day to care for wounded soldiers. Horrified by the conditions kept at the hospital where she worked, she took the the local newspaper to bring light to the unsanitary conditions. In response, the hospital gave her the task of improving conditions, which significantly reduced death rates.
If you didn’t know of Ms. Blackwell already, meet the first female doctor in U.S.! Though she was rejected by all the leading medical schools that she applied to, Geneva Medical College in New York did not immediately turn her away. In fact, the administration reportedly asked their students whether or not they should admit Elizabeth. Believing it was all a joke, the students endorsed her admission, which led to a horrified student body and townspeople when they learned that she had, indeed, been admitted. Thought at first Elizabeth was kept from classroom medical demonstrations, her persistence paid off, as she became the first female graduate from medical school in 1849 and ultimately the first woman doctor of the modern era.
Also known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” Clara Barton was a pioneering nurse who founded the American Red Cross after caring for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. She was actually one of the first volunteers to appear at the Washington Infirmary to roll up her sleeves and help heal. During the Battle of Antietam, in particular, she provided medical supplies and organized an entire team to perform first aid and provide water and food for the wounded soldiers from both the Union and Confederate sides. Later, in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln appointed her General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners, making it her life’s work to continue helping soldiers and their family members cope with their circumstances. After becoming a member of the International Red Cross in 1969, she helped establish the American Red Cross in 1880 and served as its first president until 1904.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler
As the first African-American woman to become a physician in the U.S., Rebecca Lee Crumpler challenged the racial prejudice that plagued our nation in the mid 1800s. After graduating from what is now considered Boston University in 1864, Rebecca practiced medicine in Boston before moving to Virginia where she cared for freed slaves who did not have access to health care. Amazing, right? She was also one of the first African-Americans to ever publish a medical book: Book of Medical Discourses.
It’s been said that every single baby born in a modern hospital is first looked at through the eyes of this trailblazing physician. That’s because she’s responsible for the invention of the Apgar score, a means of quickly evaluating the health of infants immediately after they’re born. Developed in the early 1950s and very quickly adopted by obstetricians around the country, the method has significantly lowered the rate of infant mortality. Virginia also became the first woman to earn the title of full professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University at a time in history when few women even attended college!
When Mary-Claire King revealed in her doctoral thesis that humans and chimpanzees were 99 percent the same, genetically speaking of course, few were convinced. But her later work on human cancers has dramatically changed the course of oncology and helped countless women in the fight against breast cancer. King is responsible for discovering the BRCA1 gene, AKA the breast gene. After studying statistics in grad school at Berkeley in the late 1960s, she fell in love with genetics and decided to dedicate her research to it specifically. Her findings have proved that most inherited breast and ovarian cancer can be prevented if those who carry the BRCA1 gene know about it and can work with their healthcare provider to establish a plan of care to keep an eye out for symptoms that can be treated early.