As everyone knows, March 8th is International Women’s Day. In honor of this special holiday, we want to spotlight a few very important women in healthcare. This list is by no means exhaustive, so please sound off in the comments if we missed your favorites!
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the US to receive her medical degree, laying the groundwork for all future female doctors.
Born in 1822, Elizabeth Blackwell was inspired to become a physician after her dying friend would have had a much easier ordeal if her doctor had been a woman. Though she faced discrimination and harassment during her time at Geneva College, she graduated top of her class in 1849! In the end, along with practicing medicine, Dr. Blackwell opened a medical college in New York so women could continue to study medicine.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, following in the footsteps of Dr. Blackwell, was the first Black woman in the United States to earn her medical degree. In the 1830s, Rebecca Lee Crumpler was raised by an aunt who spent her time caring for sick neighbors, no doubt inspiring Dr. Crumpler to pursue medicine as a career. First practicing as a nurse, she later graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864, cementing her as a historical figure.
She largely practiced in the south, having moved to Richmond, VA, after the conclusion of the Civil War. Dr. Crumpler served with other Black physicians in treating freed slaves who had trouble finding healthcare elsewhere. Facing the intersection of sexism and racism, Dr. Crumpler bravely set the groundwork for future Women of Color who would pursue healthcare in her wake.
If you’ve heard of the American Red Cross, you know about the legacy of Clara Barton. A nurse during the American Civil War, Clara earned the nickname “The Angel of the Battlefield.” After the Civil War, Clara continued to provide aid to soldiers and the military.
After visiting Switzerland in 1869 and coming across the Red Cross movement, Clara was inspired to bring this humanitarian effort back to the States. On May 21, 1888, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross, and only a year later, the US ratified the Geneva Conventions. Clara served as president of the Red Cross for 23 years, and her legacy lives on in the aid her foundation provides.
Antonia C. Novello
Antonia C. Novello is a bit closer to modern times - in fact, you might recognize her from the work she’s done administering vaccines and sharing insights during the COVID-19 pandemic! However, Dr. Novello’s contribution to medical history happened almost 30 years earlier.
Born in Puerto Rico, Dr. Novello built her medical practice starting in Michigan in the 1970s. While her score card is quite long, the most impressive milestone came in 1990, when she was named Surgeon General of the United States. Dr. Novello was the first woman (and the first person of Hispanic origin) to hold this office.
Margaret Higgins Sanger
Margaret Higgins Sanger was the founder of the birth control movement in the early 20th century. From a large family, Margaret saw the toll eleven pregnancies had on her mother, certainly influencing her outlook on the need for birth control and its impact on women's health.
While practicing as a nurse, Margaret made it her mission to provide women with birth control information. Amidst plenty of legal trouble, Margaret was able to open the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, in 1916. And in 1923, Margaret founded a clinic staffed by female doctors and social workers, which eventually became Planned Parenthood Federation of America - which continues to serve communities today!
Dr. Virginia Apgar always moved at breakneck speed, applying her endless energy to all of her pursuits. She completed her MD in 1933, and over the next twenty years, Dr. Apgar completely transformed anaesthesiology at Presbyterian Hospital in New York. However, this is not the work Dr. Apgar is known for.
In working with maternal anaesthesiology, by 1952 Dr. Apgar had developed a scoring system to evaluate the health status of newborns. The “Apgar Evaluation” has since become standard practice, performed in hospitals worldwide.
Virginia E. Johnson
Virginia E. Johnson was a prolific sexologist, researcher, and therapist. She began her journey in sexual health when she joined gynecologist William H. Masters in 1956 - she joined his lab as a secretary, but soon Masters brought Johnson on to help with his sexology research.
In 1964 Johnson and Masters established the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation. From there, Johnson not only helped elucidate female sexuality in her book (co-authored with Masters) and developed sex therapy for couples.
Loretta Ross is an activist focused on women’s human rights and racial justice - in fact, if you’ve heard the term “reproductive justice” (coined in 1994) you have Loretta to thank.
Active in the scene since the 1970s, Ross founded the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective (1997), helping Women of Color pursue reproductive justice. Here, women organize to empower themselves and others with family planning.
Did we miss a name you were hoping to see? Leave a comment and share your hero in healthcare so we can share our appreciation with them as well.