Author: Tarannum Rehal (she/her)
Science has always been an integral part of my life. When I was younger, every time someone asked what I wanted to be when I was older, I would always answer with something like a pilot, a chemist, a neurosurgeon, a pharmacist, an electrician, and the list goes on. I have always been intrigued and inspired to learn how and why things are the way they are and who pioneered their discoveries. But every time I learned about a scientific discovery, they all had one thing in common: they were discovered by men. From the first airplane (the Wright brothers) to the discovery of DNA (Watson and Crick), until I was about 17 years old, I had only known about the significant contributions of men in science. While I was inspired nonetheless, it did kind of suck that not many women were in the limelight of important scientific breakthroughs. In my 11th-grade biology class, I was taught about how it was actually Rosalind Franklin who had made a crucial contribution in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and how Watson and Crick essentially put the cherry on top of her actual labour. I remember how this knowledge had moved me and encouraged me to research and learn about many other unacknowledged women in the field of science, many of whom are now among my biggest inspirations.
September is Women in Medicine Month. This is why, through this article, I want to shed light on and share the names and contributions of some women in the field of healthcare that have helped pave the way for the women after them.
Dr. Mae C. Jemison
Mae Carol Jemison was born on October 17, 1956, to an encouraging and supportive family of her talents, passions, and abilities. She loved going to school and had a great interest in all fields of science. Jemison spent a significant amount of time in the library with a particular passion in reading books related to astronomy.
She was an honor student throughout her time at high school and went on to study chemical engineering at Stanford University on a National Achievement Scholarship. Even at university, she was a well-rounded student as she participated in a multitude of extracurricular activities including theatre and was head of the Black Student Union. Upon completing her Bachelor of Science at Stanford, she pursued medicine at Cornell University Medical College and took the initiative to study in Cuba and Kenya, and worked in Thailand at a Cambodian refugee camp. In 1981, Jemison obtained her M.D. and worked as a general practitioner at the University of Southern California Medical Center.
In 1985, Jemison decided to follow her dream to be an astronaut and made a change in her career as she sought admission in NASA’s astronaut training program. After over a year of training, on June 4, 1987, Mae Carol Jemison became the first African American woman to be admitted into NASA’s astronaut training program and became the first African American woman in space on September 12, 1992, as she went on Mission STS47 on the Endeavour with six other astronauts. Spending eight days in space as a science mission specialist, she was responsible for conducting experiments with her crew on the space shuttle. Jemison and her crew conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness and returned to Earth on September 20, 1992.
Throughout her lifetime in recognition of her accomplishments, she has been the recipient of numerous accolades including the Essence Science and Technology Award in 1988 and the Ebony Black Achievement Award in 1992. In 1990, she was named the Gamma Sigma Gamma Woman of the Year, and in 1992, had an alternative public school in Detroit named after her, the Mae C. Jemison Academy.
Dr. Anandibai Joshi
On March 31, 1865, Yamuna Joshi was born into a family of impoverished landlords in Kalyan, Maharashtra. Due to societal pressure and her family’s constant financial struggle, as was the norm and practice at that time, Yamuna was married at the age of 9 to Gopalrao Joshi, a widowed man who was 20 years older than her. Upon their marriage, Gopalrao Joshi renamed his wife as Anandi. When Anandi was just 14 years of age, she gave birth to her first child but due to lack of medical care, her child only lived a mere 10 days. This incident proved to be a significant turning point in Anandi’s life as it inspired her to become a doctor. Fortunately, Gopalrao was progressive in his thinking compared to the society and rather encouraged Anandi to pursue her desired education by helping her enroll in schools. As admissions in missionary schools did not work out, Gopalrao and Anandi moved to Calcutta where she began to learn how to read, write, and speak in Sanskrit and English.
In 1880, Gopalrao mailed a letter to a well-known American mission, the Royal Wilder, mentioning Anandibai’s great interest in seeking knowledge in medicine in America. Gopalrao’s letter was published in the Princeton Missionary Review by the Royal Wilder catching the attention of Theodicia Carpenter of New Jersey who was impressed by Anandi’s desire to study medicine and particularly help other women, given her unfortunate experience. Through several exchanged letters between Anandi and Theodicia, Anandi and Gopalrao came in contact with the Thorborns, a physician couple, who suggested for Anandi to apply to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
As Anandi’s neighbors learned of her plans to pursue education overseas in the United States, she became a topic of gossip and shame among her society. Society at the time believed that as a married woman, her identity is her husband. She should be devoted to household chores and taking care of her husband and familial life, not stepping out of line and making an identity for herself. However, Anandi was firm in her decision and Gopalrao was firm in his support. Anandi emphasized the importance of proper medical care and the need for female doctors that can provide unbiased care toward female patients, especially in Indian society. Though reluctant, her neighbors started to offer their support in her pursuit of education in medicine. In 1883, Anandi arrived in New York from Calcutta by ship, becoming the first Indian woman to study on western soil, and was enrolled in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania through her application by Rachel Bodley, the dean of the college. At age 19, Anandi began her medical education and graduated from the college with an M.D. on March 11, 1886, with her thesis topic being Obstetrics among the Aryan Hindus. Upon her graduation, she received a special congratulatory message from Queen Victoria.
Upon her return back home as the first Indian woman with an M.D., she received a hearty welcome and was appointed in the position of physician-in-charge of the female ward at Albert Edward Hospital in the state of Kohlapur.
Unfortunately, the unfamiliar American weather, clothing, and food had drastically affected Anandibai’s health to the point where she had contracted tuberculosis. She died of tuberculosis on February 26, 1887, at the age of 22, before she could begin substantial medical practice. Her ashes were sent to Theodicia, who buried them in her familial cemetery at the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetary.
As a woman of color, I am always touched and inspired by the hard work and determination of other women in color, and women overall. I am proud to say that these women are included in my inspirations. As a premed student, the journey in medicine is not easy, but then I look back and recall these incredible women and all their hardships and sacrifices that made them who they are and it only inspires me to continue to, hopefully, be an inspiration to another young woman like me someday. In a society where at times it is still viewed as a male physician or male scientist to be the norm, learning about the women before us that have left their mark in the field of science only encourages young girls to follow in their footsteps and carve their own path. Women’s discoveries in science, or in any field for that matter, should not be seen as something shocking or unorthodox.