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A history of women in medicine

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August 11, 2021
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A history of women in medicine

From Hippocrates to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of medicine has often been male. There are many reasons for this gender imbalance, from broad systemic discrimination in society, to medical-specific discrimination. For many years, women were not allowed in medical schools, and in some cases, such as in ancient Greece, a woman practicing medicine was considered a crime.

But despite these oppressive odds, women throughout history have defied these pressures and have gone on to study and work in various medical fields. Many of them have made groundbreaking discoveries and contributions to medicine, ranging from neonatal health to DNA structure.

A common characteristic among many of these women, particularly those practicing before the mid-20th century, is they stood up to families that did not wish for them to attend medical school, and worked alongside men who did not believe they belonged in the medical arena.

Those active earlier sometimes had to resort to even more drastic measures than familial defiance—in some cases, even disguising themselves as men in order to study and practice medicine.

Nursing Education compiled a list of 15 women who changed medicine over the course of history from news, scientific, and government reports. Click through for a look at these remarkable women who defied the odds against them and went on to change how we understand and heal from a wide range of medical conditions.

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Marie Curie

Marie Curie is known primarily as a pioneering woman in physics and chemistry, and her contribution to the field of medicine is also seismic. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903, sharing it with her husband, Pierre Curie, and another collaborator for the discovery of radioactivity. She also went on to receive a Nobel Prize in chemistry herself in 1911 for her 1898 discovery of polonium and radium. This had an immense impact on the field of radiology and medicine more broadly. Radium allowed for the development of X-rays, which assists doctors in diagnosing everything from bone fractures to more serious diseases of the internal organs.

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Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale is widely considered to be the founder of modern nursing. Nightingale received intense on-the-ground experience in nursing during the Crimean war in the 1850s. Working as a British nurse, she found appalling conditions in the hospitals of Constantinople in which soldiers were being treated for injuries. She found more were dying from poor hygiene conditions rather than injuries sustained in battle. She focused on turning the hospital into a clean and appealing place to stay. She brought these techniques back home to London after the war, where she established herself as a leader in nursing practices, which are still in effect today.

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Joseph Stanley Kozlowski // Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Blackwell

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to be granted a medical degree in the United States. She decided to pursue the degree in medicine after a dying friend told her she believed she would have received better medical care from a female doctor. Her efforts to find a school to attend, however, were disheartening. Blackwell was rejected from more than 10 medical colleges and even told by one to disguise herself as a man—advice she rejected. In 1849, Blackwell graduated from the Geneva Medical College in New York. She later founded a hospital in New York intended to help women and the poor.

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Rebecca Lee Crumpler // Wikimedia Commons

Rebecca Lee Crumper

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumper was the first Black woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. She had worked as a nurse for eight years before enrolling at the New England Female Medical College in Boston and graduating in 1864. After the Civil War, Crumper moved to the South to care for formerly enslaved people. After returning to Boston, Crumper attributed the renewed zeal she found for her work to her experiences in the South, despite the intense racism and sexism she faced. In addition to her work in medicine, she is the author of “A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts,” which was published in 1883.

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Agnodice is commonly thought of as the first female physician in the world, and she is often debated as being a myth or legend. Living in Athens during the fourth century, the midwife and doctor became interested in the profession when she noticed many women dying in childbirth. Midwifery was a crime punishable by death in her era, so she cut off her hair and disguised herself as a man to learn medicine. After she had obtained the necessary medical skills to minister to women in childbirth, she was so in demand that men in Athens believed she was seducing their wives. She was eventually sentenced to death when her secret was exposed, but protests erupted upon the verdict, and the law was changed, allowing women to practice medicine.

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Margaret Higgins Sanger

Margaret Higgins Sanger certainly paved the way to modern birth control. In the early 20th century, contraceptives were not widely available and were considered scandalous, as people believed women would be promiscuous without the threat of childbirth hanging over their heads. Sanger completed her education in nursing in 1902 and in 1910 moved to New York City where she became active in progressive-era initiatives. She became activist for birth control, an effort she worked for throughout the rest of her life. Sanger opened some of the earliest birth control clinics in the country in the 1920s, similar to Planned Parenthood today. Also, with the help of Katharine McCormick, an International Harvester heiress, and Gregory Pincus, a researcher, she helped develop one of the first oral contraceptives in the world—“the pill”—in 1960, six years before her death at 86.

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Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Elion was a Nobel Prize–winning biochemist and pharmacologist in 1988. Elion was inspired to study medicine after witnessing her grandfather succumb to cancer when she was only 15. She was trained as a chemist in college, but she could not afford further education during The Great Depression. When World War II diminished the number of male chemists able to work in America, she got her break into the industry and put her academic skills to use. Elion developed not only groundbreaking new drugs and treatments for patients with leukemia and those in need of organ transplants and antiviral medications, but she also created a more rational model of drug development, discarding trial and error in favor of a more systematic approach that is still used widely today.

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Mary Edwans Walker

In 1863, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker became the first female U.S. Army surgeon for the Union Army during the Civil War. She received her medical degree in 1855 from Syracuse Medical College. Walker’s parents were progressive abolitionists, who encouraged her to wear “bloomers” at a young age and believed she could do anything that a man could do. Her first attempt to serve as an Army surgeon in 1891 was unsuccessful because she was a woman, so she volunteered as a nurse to help tend to the wounded on the front lines. Before Walker’s request to become an Army surgeon was eventually granted, Walker also requested to become a spy during the Civil War. Although that request was denied, Walker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom after the war for her work tending to the wounded.

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U.S. National Library of Medicine // Wikimedia Commons

Sara Josephine Baker

Among Dr. Sara Josephine Baker’s many accomplishments was reducing infant mortality in New York City—twice. In the early 20th century, she was appointed the first female head of the city’s Bureau of Child Hygiene, where she instituted pioneering programs in preventive care and basic hygiene. She also played a role in one of the most sensational cases of the era. In 1907, Baker was instrumental in helping identify so-called Typhoid Mary, a cook with typhoid who spread it to numerous families.

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Smithsonian Institution // Wikimedia Commons

Mary Engle Pennington

Because she was a woman, Mary Engle Pennington did not receive a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1892, instead she was given a certificate of proficiency in chemistry. That did not stop her from pursuing a doctorate in chemistry from the same university three years later. Pennington went on to become a bacteriologist and played a pivotal role in educating the public about the dangers of contaminants in food. While with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1906, she helped implement the Pure Food and Drug Act in response to the public’s concern about unsanitary conditions in food processing plants, and she was responsible for milk and dairy standard initiatives in refrigeration that were adopted across the country. She went on to spend the rest of her career as an expert in home refrigeration and safe handling of fresh and frozen foods.

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Gerty Cori

In 1920, Dr. Gerty Cori received her medical degree from the Medical School of the German University in Prague Czechoslovakia. She emigrated to the United States with her husband, Dr. Carl Cori, two years after receiving her doctorate. They became citizens of the United States in 1928 and worked together for years while in the United States as research scientists. In 1947, Cori was named a professor in biochemistry at the St. Louis Washington University Medical School. That also was the same year she shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with her husband “for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen.” Throughout her career, she also published numerous papers in scientific journals and periodicals.

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Virgina Apgar

In 1952, Dr. Virginia Apgar introduced the Apgar Score—a scale used to measure the health of a baby at one- and five-minute intervals after birth. This was a pioneering development in neonatal health that is still used today. Originally planning to become a surgeon, Apgar was guided to the field of anesthesiology, which was being handled by nurses into the mid-1940s. Her focus and innovative work led to her being named the first woman full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1949, when anesthesia research became an academic department. Initial findings based on the Apgar Score led to further medical advancements in infant survival and neurological development.

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Antonia Novello

In 1990, Dr. Antonia Novello became the first woman to become surgeon general of the United States. She was also the first Hispanic person to do so. Novello specialized in pediatrics and public health, and she had formerly held a top position at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Novello’s interest in medicine stemmed from personal experience. As a child, she was frequently hospitalized with conditions no one could name, and these were not resolved until much later in her life.

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MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology // Wikimedia Commons

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin’s scientific work led to breakthroughs in understanding DNA. Franklin developed an interest in medicine as a teenager in the 1930s, and she fought against her family’s wishes to get a degree from Cambridge University. Receiving that degree in 1941, she became a scientist who would go on to discover the double helix structure of DNA, which would have enormous scientific and medical implications . If she had not died at a young age from cancer in 1958, she would likely have received the Nobel Prize several years later when it was awarded for work on DNA.

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Francoise Barre-Sinoussi

A professor emeritus at the Institut Pasteur and director emeritus of research at the Inserm, both in Paris, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Ph.D., has been celebrated for being a co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, as the cause of AIDS. This discovery in 1983 helped millions of AIDS patients live longer and healthier lives. It will also likely play a role in any future vaccines or cures that are discovered. Barré-Sinoussi has been a passionate advocate for applying her work and discoveries in the developing world. She received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2008 for her role in the HIV discovery, and she has written books and articles on the subject for numerous publications.


This story originally appeared on Nursing Education and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

This story originally appeared on and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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