A history of women in medicine

a history of women in medicine
1/16 SLIDES © Imperial War Museums // Getty Images

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.

a history of women in medicine
2/16 SLIDES © Hulton Deutsch // Getty Images

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.

a history of women in medicine
3/16 SLIDES © Print Collector // Getty Images

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.

a history of women in medicine
4/16 SLIDES © 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.

a history of women in medicine
Slideshow continues on the next slide
a history of women in medicine
5/16 SLIDES © 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.

a history of women in medicine
6/16 SLIDES © Wellcome Images // Wikimedia Commons

Agnodice

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.

a history of women in medicine
7/16 SLIDES © Bettmann // Getty Images

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.

a history of women in medicine
8/16 SLIDES © Will & Deni McIntyre // Getty Images

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.

a history of women in medicine
9/16 SLIDES © Universal History Archive // Getty Images

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.

a history of women in medicine
Slideshow continues on the next slide
a history of women in medicine
10/16 SLIDES © 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.

a history of women in medicine
11/16 SLIDES © 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.

a history of women in medicine
12/16 SLIDES © Fox Photos // Getty Images

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.

a history of women in medicine
13/16 SLIDES © Bettmann // Getty Images

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.

a history of women in medicine
14/16 SLIDES © Smith Collection/Gado // Getty Images

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.

News Related

OTHER NEWS

Watch Zendaya's Reaction When Timothée Chalamet Calls Tom Holland Her 'Celebrity Crush'

© ‘Buzzfeed’ Busted! Though Zendaya and Tom Holland have kept their reported real-life romance primarily private, the 25-year-old Dune star did get a bit of playful teasing from her co-star, ... Read more »

Celebrities react to Alec Baldwin's 'horrifying' prop gun accident

1/27 SLIDES © Provided by Daily Mail Celebrities and industry figures took to social media after learning of the tragic accident that occurred on the set of Alec Baldwin’s forthcoming film ... Read more »

These video games are worth a fortune today

1/40 SLIDES © Courtesy Heritage Auctions The most sought-after and valuable vintage and recent titles You won’t believe the prices collectors are willing to pay for your old and not so ... Read more »

Inside Saddest Factory Records: How Phoebe Bridgers Is Quietly Building an Indie Empire

Phoebe Bridgers Charlie Hickey Claud Scruffpuppie Billboard’s third annual package spotlighting the independent music business opens with an inside look at the Phoebe Bridgers’ run label Saddest Factory Records. Just ... Read more »

Kierra & Karen Clark-Sheard Team Up Atop Gospel Airplay Chart

Kierra Sheard It’s a family affair atop Billboard’s Gospel Airplay chart, as Kierra’s “Something Has to Break,” featuring her mother, Karen Clark-Sheard, rises to No. 1 on the list dated ... Read more »

Best albums by The Rolling Stones

1/29 SLIDES © Scott Gries // Getty Images Best albums by The Rolling Stones The transcendent sound of The Rolling Stones has redefined multiple genres of music. The band grew out ... Read more »

Churches to castles: historic places to stay in Britain

1/45 SLIDES © Cowdray Estate/Facebook Historic hideaways Britain has a long and illustrious history that has resulted in a wonderfully eclectic mix of architectural styles. From royal palaces and Gothic cathedrals ... Read more »

Delicious money-saving meals from canned foods

1/31 SLIDES © AnastasiaKopa/Shutterstock It’s in the can Having the essential canned foods in your store cupboard helps you save money and time but doesn’t mean you have to compromise on ... Read more »

Publishing Briefs: WCM Signs Jhené Aiko & Elvie Shane; Emeli Sandé Finds Reservoir

Jhené Aiko Warner Chappell Music has signed a co-publishing deal with Grammy-nominated artist Jhené Aiko. The deal includes all songs created by Aiko from January 2021 until the deal’s end, ... Read more »

K-Pop stars BTS dump Sony for Universal Music

K-Pop superstars BTS have ditched Sony Music’s Columbia Records as their distributor and marketing partner in favour of Universal Music. The move was confirmed by BTS’s management company Hybe after initial reports by ... Read more »

Brandon Lee's family offer support following Halyna Hutchins's death on film set

The family of late actor Brandon Lee have spoken out following cinematographer Halyna Hutchins’s tragic death in an onset firearm accident. © Provided by Cover Media Brandon Lee The incident ... Read more »

From USSR to Hollywood: how Halyna Hutchins succeeded as a top cinematographer

Halyna Hutchins was a talented and passionate cinematographer who was clearly enjoying her job as director of photography on Alec Baldwin’s latest cowboy movie. Over the past three weeks, she ... Read more »

You didn’t know these customs were offensive in some countries

1/56 SLIDES © Shutterstock You didn’t know these customs were offensive in some countries In a growing global culture of travel and tourism, it’s important to remember that our seemingly normal ... Read more »

'Dune' star Timothee Chalamet's wildest and most playful fashion moments

1/19 SLIDES © Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock Timothee Chalamet pushes the envelope in the best way possible when it comes to men’s fashion. To celebrate the debut of his newest movie, “Dune,” on ... Read more »

Breaking down different kinds of skiing

1/11 SLIDES © Lukas Gojda // Shutterstock Breaking down different kinds of skiing Traversing or gliding across snow has been a common sport for millennia. Fragments of skis—primitive but unmistakably similar ... Read more »

How U.K. Touring Is Struggling to Keep On Truckin’

LONDON — In April 2022, when Ed Sheeran begins his + – = ÷ x shows — which he’s calling the Mathematics Tour — dozens of trucks from the U.K. ... Read more »

System of a Down Postpone L.A. Stadium Dates After Singer Serj Tankian Tests Positive For COVID-19

Serj Tankian of System of a Down System of a Down were forced to postpone their two planned hometown shows this weekend at Banc of California Stadium after singer Serj ... Read more »

How Angelina Jolie Keeps From Being a 'Dramatic' Mom to 6 Kids

1/35 SLIDES © Sara De Boer/startraksphoto.com Mother of six! Angelina Jolie has more than a handful of children in her brood, so it’s no surprise that the actress loves gushing about ... Read more »

Will Iran’s Censorship, Looming Internet Shutdown Dash Mehdi Rajabian’s Grammy Chances?

Mehdi Rajabian Iranian composer and musician Mehdi Rajabian would like nothing more than to be nominated for a Grammy. But the Iranian government’s plans to shut down communications to the outside ... Read more »

It's 'Lit'! Kim Kardashian's Kids Throw Her a 41st Birthday Party

Best birthday! Kim Kardashian’s kids helped her celebrate her 41st year on Thursday, October 21. © Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock Kim Kardashian Kim Kardashian’s Greatest Quotes About Motherhood Read article “The party ... Read more »

Adele calls divorce her 'biggest ever risk'

Adele says her divorce from Simon Konecki was her “biggest risk”. © Bang Showbiz Adele The ‘Easy on Me’ hitmaker – who announced their breakup in April 2019 after a ... Read more »

What 'Dune' Author Frank Herbert Said About the 1984 David Lynch Adaptation (Flashback)

© Universal Pictures Dune, the new star-studded epic from Denis Villeneuve, is getting positive reviews and praise for its visual interpretation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic. Before the author ... Read more »

Carrie Underwood can't stand her husband's collection of 'dead things on the walls'

Carrie Underwood gets frustrated with her husband’s belongings cluttering up their home. © Bang Showbiz Mike Fisher and Carrie Underwood The ‘Love Wins’ singer has revealed what really grinds her ... Read more »

Shanna Shuts Down Troll Who Says Her Kids Will Be Kardashian 'Royalty'

Don’t knock her crown. Shanna Moakler fired back at an Instagram troll who claimed her kids will become part of reality TV “royalty” following Travis Barker‘s engagement to Kourtney Kardashian. ... Read more »

Penn Badgley Names the 'Worst' Thing Dan Humphrey Did on 'Gossip Girl'

© Marcel Thomas/FilmMagic Unlike his fictional counterpart, Penn Badgley has plenty of Gossip Girl secrets he’s willing to tell! The 34-year-old actor, who famously played Dan Humphrey on the hit teen ... Read more »

Selma Blair Reflects on Having Her Son Arthur Shave Her Head Ahead of Stem Cell Transplant (Exclusive)

© ET Selma Blair is sharing her journey with multiple sclerosis (MS) in her new documentary, Introducing, Selma Blair. The neurological disease is something the 49-year-old actress has been battling ... Read more »

Dove Cameron on Keeping Her Love Life Private and What She's Learned On Tour (Exclusive)

© etonline Dove Cameron has had a change of heart about openly discussing her love life. ET spoke to the 25-year-old “LazyBaby” singer, and she revealed why she’s decided to ... Read more »

We Tasted 5 Fast-Food Chicken Nuggets and These Are the Best

1/6 SLIDES © Shutterstock We Tasted 5 Fast-Food Chicken Nuggets and These Are the Best There’s something so satisfying about dunking a fresh, hot chicken nugget into the dipping sauce of ... Read more »

Highest-rated dessert shops in Albany, according to Tripadvisor

1/10 SLIDES © Canva Highest-rated dessert shops in Albany, according to Tripadvisor Research—and plenty of anecdotal evidence—shows that people tend to eat more calories and crave more sweet foods in the ... Read more »

The most shocking lies ever told by celebrities

1/30 SLIDES © Getty Images The most shocking lies ever told by celebrities We all tell lies—it’s just part of being human. And, of course, celebrities are no exception. Some of ... Read more »

Highest-rated dessert shops in Newark, according to Tripadvisor

1/12 SLIDES © Canva Highest-rated dessert shops in Newark, according to Tripadvisor Research—and plenty of anecdotal evidence—shows that people tend to eat more calories and crave more sweet foods in the ... Read more »

Celebrity Weddings of 2021: See Which Stars Tied the Knot

1/63 SLIDES © Courtesy Sarah Levy/Instagram Even a pandemic can’t stop wedding bells from ringing. As the world slowly began to open back up in 2021 following the COVID-19 crisis, stars ... Read more »

Hilarious snaps reveal bizarre ways people overcome everyday issues

1/12 SLIDES © Provided by Daily Mail It can be more sustainable and cost effective to solve a problem in your house using creativity instead of going to the shops, but ... Read more »

Gene Simmons puts his Las Vegas mansion on the market for $14.95m

1/17 SLIDES © Evangelina Duke-Petroni | The Ivan Sher Group Quick turnaround: Kiss frontman Gene Simmons, 72, is selling his home near Las Vegas for $14.95 million, People reported on Thursday. ... Read more »

11 Secrets Texas Roadhouse Doesn't Want You to Know

1/12 SLIDES © Provided by Eat This, Not That! 11 Secrets Texas Roadhouse Doesn’t Want You to Know When you really want a nice juicy steak and all the sides, but ... Read more »

ABBA release third track Just A Notion from upcoming comeback album

© Provided by Daily Mail MailOnline logo ABBA have released Just A Notion – the third track from their upcoming November 5 comeback album, Voyage. The iconic Swedish pop group – ... Read more »

Hunter Hayes Resurrects a Song Six Years in the Making — Courtesy of 'Tell Me'

Hunter Hayes has always been one to follow his instincts. He’s never questioned his gut and he’s never been scared to turn left when the world is telling him to ... Read more »

London's gateway to the world: Images show life at UK's biggest port

1/12 SLIDES © Provided by Daily Mail London’s gateway to the world for 200 years: Rarely-seen images capture life at UK’s biggest port since 19th century, when ‘knocker-uppers’ fired peas at ... Read more »

13 Cozy Chicken Pot Pie Recipes That Are Actually Healthy

1/15 SLIDES © Provided by Eat This, Not That! 13 Cozy Chicken Pot Pie Recipes That Are Actually Healthy On a stressful or nerve-wracking day, nothing is better than coming home ... Read more »

These stars appeared on game shows before they were famous

1/30 SLIDES © Getty Images These stars appeared on game shows before they were famous Many people would leap at the chance to get their 15 minutes of fame on a ... Read more »