March is National Women’s History Month and is a great opportunity to commemorate the achievements of women in medicine and the progress that’s been made in medical science.
There are many women who made massive contributions to U.S medical history such as the first women to receive medical degrees or women who made major advances in the surgical field.
For many decades, men were consistently recognized and admired for their medical achievements and breakthroughs. While it wasn’t easy for the initial pioneering women to break into medicine and leave their mark, with plenty of perseverance and hard work, they started the long journey for more women to gain recognition in medicine.
In this post, we’ll call out five of the most influential women in U.S medical history and look at how they’ve helped shape the trajectory of U.S medicine.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 - 1910)
Kicking off the list, Elizabeth Blackwell is perhaps the most well-known woman in medicine. Credited with being the first-ever American woman to be awarded a medical degree, she used her ability to help train nurses during the Civil War and start an infirmary for underprivileged women and children in New York.
She also made regular trips to Europe, establishing the first British medical school for women in 1874, which allowed more women to follow in her footsteps and pursue their ambition to become a doctor.
Margaret Higgins Sanger (1879 - 1966)
Sanger is known for her work in advocating for safe and effective birth control. Ahead of her time, she was considered revolutionary for working in the field of birth control and faced a persistent backlash that ultimately forced her to escape the U.S in 1915. Never giving up, she continued in her quest for accessible birth control, opening the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916.
She was then arrested nine days after opening her clinic. Sanger continued the fight for women to have access to birth control, developing what became one of the first oral contraceptives, Enovid.
A great example of a woman who never gave up in her struggle, her perseverance and pioneering vision undoubtedly led to women all over the world to have more access to birth control.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831 - 1895)
Graduating in 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree. Following the Civil War, Crumpler worked tirelessly to provide medical care for freed slaves.
She then moved to Boston where she wrote a medical book titled ‘A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts’. She is known not only for her pioneering work as a female doctor but also as a true force for overcoming issues of race and prejudice.
Virginia Apgar (1909 - 1974)
Virginia Apgar developed the Apgar test, a system used to assess the health of newborns, which is still used in hospitals today.
Virginia Apgar initially trained as an anesthesiologist, becoming Columbia’s first female professor in 1949. She dedicated herself to work on anesthesia and childbirth, demanding for more attention to be paid to premature birth and the childhood vaccination against rubella. Notably, Apgar also taught teratology (the study of birth defects) and also became Cornell’s first professor of pediatrics.
Virginia Apgar received multiple awards and honors for her work and dedication to medicine.
Gertrude Elion (1918 - 1999)
Gertrude Elion was an American pharmacologist and biochemist. Honored for her work in the field of treating diseases, Elion went on to share the 1988 Nobel Prize for her efforts in developing drugs used to treat serious diseases. Following retirement, Elion supervised the development of azidothymidine, an AIDS treatment that prevents pregnant women from spreading the disease to their child. She also devised the first antiviral drug to treat viral Herpes infections.
Elion was also responsible for inventing an immunosuppressive drug key to organ transplants.
While these women all had a massive impact on medicine around the world, there are plenty of other female scientists, activists, and doctors who have made strong contributions to the medical field. While breaking societal and gender expectations for their era, these women have paved the way for others to follow and continue leaving their mark on medicine. Thousands of lives have been saved and will continue to be saved as a result of the dedication and hard work of these women.
This National Women’s History Month, it’s time to honor the achievements and huge contributions that women have made to medical science and research.