The road to gender equality in healthcare has never been easy – early medical pioneers had to overcome stereotypes, societal norms, rampant sexism and racism, and policy intended to limit their contributions. Still, they fought for their dreams, for equality, and for the right to obtain an education, conduct research, and treat patients. The fight took them to other countries, to men-only educational institutions, and to create their own institutions, clinics, and medical publications.
Today, thanks to the foundation laid by the strong women that came before us, over 78% of the people working in healthcare and social assistance are female. Yet, they continue to face challenges related to gender stereotypes, unequal pay, workplace harassment, limited opportunities for advancement, work-related stress, policies that favor patriarchy, and continued rampant sexism and racism.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we remember the women who fought so hard for our gains and the women who have picked up the mantle and continue to change the world.
Here are five women who changed healthcare before us and five women who are changing the world around us.
5 Historical Women Who Were Pioneers in Healthcare
Fighting racism, sexism, and the patriarchal model of both education and medicine, these women fought for their rights to research, practice medicine, and change lives. They also fought to lift up and educate other women, making the generation to follow them that much stronger.
First Female MD in the US: Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821-1910
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, in 1849. She was inspired to study medicine when a close friend who was dying believed she would have suffered much less if treated by a woman physician. Although turned down by over ten medical schools, Blackwell persisted and graduated from Geneva Medical College in New York. When she had trouble finding employment, Dr. Blackwell co-founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children to provide medical care to the poor and to support other women seeking careers in medicine.
Dr. Blackwell also published books on the issue of women in medicine, including Medicine as a Profession For Women and Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.
She continued to campaign for reform even after her health declined and she retired from practice.
First African American Female MD in the US: Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831-1895)
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree, graduating from New England Female Medical College in 1864. Before attending medical school, she worked as a nurse for eight years. She was inspired to practice medicine by her aunt, who cared for sick neighbors, and her wish to relieve others’ suffering.
She is also the author of one of the first medical publications written by an African American, A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts, published in 1883.
After the Civil War, she worked with the Freedman’s Bureau and other missionary groups providing care to formerly enslaved people who would otherwise have had no access to healthcare. Practicing in the postwar South, she also experienced intense sexism and racism.
First Native American Female MD in the US: Susan LaFlesche Picotte, MD (1865-1915)
Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Her decision to study medicine was inspired when she witnessed a blatant and horrifying act of racism as a child – a white doctor refusing to treat a Native American woman who was dying.
She first studied philosophy, physiology, and literature and became a teacher on the Omaha Reservation. At 24, she completed a 3-year medical degree program in two years, graduating as valedictorian. After her training was complete, Dr. Picotte worked as a government physician at the Omaha reservation where she was born. She was also an activist and public health advocate.
In 1913, she opened a hospital on the reservation in Walkhill. Sadly, she passed away two years later due to complications after surgery. Her hospital is now a National Historic Landmark, the Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center, dedicated both to her work and the history of the Winnebago and Omaha tribes.
A First Nobel Prizewinner: Gerty Theresa Cori, Ph.D. (1896-1957)
Dr. Gerty Theresa Cori was the first woman in the US to win a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research that continues to save lives today. Dr. Cori and her husband met in medical school in Prague. Afterward, she became a biochemistry professor and conducted biomedical research with her husband. Although they worked and published together, Gerty wasn’t treated as an equal. In fact, she was told she’d ruin her husband’s career if she persisted. Nevertheless, they persisted together, studying how the body uses food for energy. Their Nobel-winning research, named the Cori cycle after them, explained glucose metabolization – key to developing diabetes treatments.
Mapped the Prefrontal Cortex: Patricia Goldman-Rakic, Ph.D. (1937-2003)
Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic was a psychologist and innovative neuroscientist whose multidisciplinary research on the human brain gave the medical world critical information about functioning in areas such as cognition, planning, and memory. Dr. Goldman-Rakic’s study of the prefrontal cortex led her to further discoveries about how memory works. Her work has led to a greater understanding of memory, mental illness, cognition, and cognitive disorders.
Her research was the foundation for further breakthroughs in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, and more. Her research and insight altered conventional understanding of the brain and mind and paved the way for research for generations to come.
When Dr. Goldman-Rakic passed away in 2003, she was a Professor in the Departments of Neurobiology, Neurology, Psychiatry, and Psychology at Yale.
5 Women Who Are Poised to Change the World
Women today face new challenges in research and medicine, although gender and racial discrimination still abound. Like their predecessors, they push forward, breaking the glass ceiling and changing the world.
Women today are leaders in research, education, science, technology, and healthcare and are making discoveries and innovations in healthcare that will change the very way we think about and deliver healthcare.
Here are five women making history now:
Using Social Media for Change: Amelia Burke-Garcia, Ph.D.
Dr. Amelia Burke-Garcia is a digital health communicator and researcher using online tools like social media to analyze and influence health behaviors. In our digital society, the internet has become a popular source of health information – and not all of it is accurate.
Dr. Garcia looks at questions such as how bloggers influence readers and how online support groups influence how patients talk about their illness offline. She uses her data and insights to help public health groups communicate more effectively, helping others make healthier choices. By some estimates, at least 8 out of 10 people get their health information online. Dr. Garcia’s methods and work can ensure the information they access is more accurate, safer, and accessible, using the internet’s reach to improve lives and deliver health information to those without access to other sources.
Digital Disease Detection: Maimuna (Maia) Majumder, Ph.D.
Dr. Majumder is a computational epidemiologist developing innovative ways to collect and use public health data, pioneering a new field in public health called digital disease detection that uses data from social media and other non-traditional sources to identify health trends.
Rather than depend on lengthy formal studies administered by health departments, Majumder has tracked and analyzed disease outbreaks from local media reports and estimated the impact of vaccination rates. Digital disease detection means earlier identification of outbreaks, faster responses from health departments, and the potential to prevent global spread. She has tracked and analyzed recent outbreaks in mumps, measles, and of course COVID-19.
Dr. Majumder is on the faculty at both Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
3D Printing in Healthcare: Julielynn Wong, MD, MPH
Dr. Wong is an internationally known educator, innovator, and physician-scientist using cutting-edge technology to transform healthcare. She specializes in using 3D printing, drone, digital health, telemedicine, and robotics to deliver healthcare to diverse and remote environments – including outer space. She was the first to 3D print supplies for the International Space Station and invented a solar-powered 3D printer that can be used in off-grid locations to print medical supplies.
Dr. Wong is board certified in aerospace medicine, clinical informatics, occupational medicine, and public health and general preventive medicine, is a prolific author, a passionate educator, holds 14 pending patents for medical devices, founded the Medical Makers program, and is a highly sought-after speaker.
Microbiome and Neurology: Elaine Hsiao, Ph.D.
Dr. Elaine Hsiao examines the role of microbial cells in the human body, their interactions with our brain and behavior, and their role in neurological disorders. She is working to discover the path of communication between the microbiota and our nervous system to understand their influence on the brain and behavior.
Her work, including research on the neuroimmune interactions in autism, has received honors including the National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award, National Geographic’s Emerging Explorer Award, the Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering, fellowships from the National Institute of Mental Health and Autism Speaks, Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship in Neuroscience, Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship in Neuroscience, and a place on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Science and Healthcare.
Closing In on a Cancer Cure: Nina Shah, MD
Dr. Nina Shah is an oncologist and hematologist specializing in the treatment of blood marrow cancer multiple myeloma. She is studying a new way to use the body’s own immune system to treat cancer, called CAR T-cell therapy, and her accomplishments may bring her close to finding a cure.
CAR T-cell therapy modifies an individual’s own T-cells, so they are redesigned to target specific cancer cells. The modified T-cells multiply and kill cancer when reintroduced into the patient’s body. Dr. Shah’s work on the next generation of CAR T-cell therapy has shown promise in treating multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer with a 5-year survival rate of just 50 percent.
Dr. Shah has authored or co-authored dozens of research publications, and her research is currently in multiple clinical studies.
Honoring the Past, Looking to the Future
Elizabeth Blackwell, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, Gerty Theresa Cori, Patricia Goldman-Rakic, and so many others: Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Virginia Apgar, Mary Putnam Jacobi, Ann Preston, Rachel Schneerson, Mary Guinan, Regina M. Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General, Maria Elena Bottazzi, Beth Stevens. These women’s names should never be forgotten, and so many others.
A list of women who have changed or are now changing the future of healthcare would be never-ending. Today, schoolgirls have women mentors and heroes inspiring them, encouraging them, educating them, and lifting them up in the tradition begun by Blackwell, Crumpler, and others.
There is no limit to what they can accomplish. Together, we’ll remember where we came from to understand what it took to get where we’re going. And together, we’ll change the world.