Author: Andrea Gutierrez (Research/Article Committee)
In today’s modern society we see a greater representation of women in the medical field. We see women taking on leadership roles and taking over the male dominated field of medicine, being the boss ladies that they are. It’s been a long journey for women in this field and continues to be an ongoing struggle at times, but let’s look back, and celebrate the women that came before us and began paving this path. They became the model for those currently filling their shoes and for the rest of us, that are yet to come, working towards that MD.
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Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. She was born in England emigrated to the States at a young age. Doctor Blackwell growing up campaigned for women’s rights and for the anti-slavery movement. She was originally a teacher but was said to have been inspired to pursue medicine after a close friend of hers who was dying told her she would have spared her lots of suffering if her physician had been a woman. She sought help from family physicians but was told it would be too expensive and the education was just not available for women. She worked through the doubts and obstacles and with most denials and one acceptance she matriculated into Geneva Medical College in New York. She became an OBGYN and along with some colleagues, including her sister she founded the New York Infirmary for women and children. This institution along with its medical college provided training and experience for women physicians, she helped many women physicians do internships and expanded their skills as well as care for the poor. She went on to publish several books on the issue of women in medicine. Interesting fact, the faculty at Geneva assumed that the all-male class would never agree to allow a woman in, allowed them to vote on her admission and as a joke they voted yes. In conclusion, what to them was a joke, to women, she became the pioneer and a role model who paved the pathway for opportunity and change for generations to come of women doctors.
Next, we have Rebecca Lee Crumpler MD (1831- 1895), she was the first African American woman to earn an MD degree and publish a medical book “Book of the Medical Disclosures”. Doctor Crumpler was not only challenged by her gender but also by prejudice. Growing up she found a passion for medicine while caring for her sick neighbors, so pursued a career as nurse and practiced for about 8 years. In 1860, she was matriculated into the New England Female Medical College and when graduated she moved to pursue her “missionary work” as she called it to “relieve the suffering of others." Her work ethic and pure heart led her to continue serving people and eventually joined other black physicians to care for the poor including freed slaves who had no access to care. She became a part of the Freeman’s Bureau despite the racism and discrimination she was exposed to in the South. A true hero, leader and exemplary woman with passion and resilience she was, selfless and committed. Dr. Crumpler eventually moved to Boston where she focused on pediatric care. By 1880 she no longer practiced medicine but the impact and influence she made on those lives she touched and even those that she would never even know of continues to live on today.
Susan La Flesche Picotte
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Susan La Flesche Picolette MD (1865-1915) was the first native American woman to receive a medical degree. Dr. La Flesche was born into the Omaha tribe in Nebraska. As a young child she was exposed and not oblivious to the neglect incited by the medical world. When she was a little girl, she witnesses a community member die because the doctor never arrived to help. She mentioned later
“for even then I saw the need of my people”.
She attended Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania where she faced severe discrimination but endured it and graduated top of her class in only 2 years of a 3-year program. She insisted on returning home to her community to care for them because she knew the dire need her community was in. She knew that her and other minority communities would not obtain the quality care deserved so she took it onto her own hands to become that doctor that her community so well deserved. She became a safe haven of minorities that would not entrust white doctors due fear and discrimination. She is the epitome of a strong and independent woman who took tragedy and saw it as an opportunity and inspiration. She saw the need for a doctor and went out to become one, her strength and grace saved hundreds of lives and encouraged many to continue to push forward and be the change that one wants to see.
Our final highlight is focused on Antonia Novello MD (1944-). She was the first woman of Hispanic origin to become the Surgeon General of the United States. Doctor Novello was born in in Puerto Rico, and was born with a medical condition (congenital megacolon). Unable to obtain surgery due to financial constraints, she went on years with pain. She grew up determined to succeed and provide care for those in similar shoes. She attended the University of Puerto Rico and then later continued her education at Johns Hopkins. She became a pediatric nephrologist but found herself becoming too emotionally attached to her patients and like she called it “crying as much as the parents did”. She opted to join the U.S Public Health Service in 1979 and worked with the National Institutes of Health throughout the 1980s later becoming the coordinator for AIDS research and this work got her noticed by the White House. She was appointed Surgeon General by Bush in 1990 and focused her efforts on the health of children, women, and minorities. She was a true role model and continued her excellence at the United Nations Children’s Fund for 3 years. Her efforts and love for children and people drove her to advocate and advise poor communities especially provide care for Hispanic/Latino Americans and minorities through her practice in preventive medicine and health services. She raised national and global awareness and was able to touch so many lives through her service.
These are only a few of the women who have changed the face of medicine. Regardless of gender bias, race, or ethnicity these women prevailed through discrimination and struggles to achieve success and serve as role models and encouragement to women and men all over the world.
“Center for Women's Health.” OHSU, www.ohsu.edu/womens-health/women-who-inspire-us-antonia-novello-md.
“Changing the Face of Medicine| Exhibition.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/.
“Changing the Face of Medicine | Rebecca Lee Crumpler.” U.S. National Library of Medicine,
“Changing the Face of Medicine | Susan La Flesche Picotte.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 3 June 2015, cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_253.html.
“Novello, Antonia.” National Women's Hall of Fame, www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/antonia-novello/.