Our series would not be complete without acknowledging the contributions women have made to medicine. Here are just a few of the impressive women at the forefront of medical advancement, making the world a healthier one for us all.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler carries the very distinctive honor of being the first African American woman to receive a Medical Degree (MD) in the US, at a time when both African Americans and women faced significant barriers to becoming doctors.
Dr. Crumpler was inspired to go into medicine by her aunt, who frequently took care of sick neighbors. She began her career as a nurse in 1852, albeit with no formal training since there were no nursing schools at that time. In 1860, she became the first and only African American woman accepted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston (the first school to award MDs to women). She received her “Doctress of Medicine” in 1864. At that time there were 54,543 physicians in the country; only 270 were women (all white) and only 180 were African American men.
Dr. Crumpler received her degree as the Civil War was ending. She put it to good use, working with the Freedmen’s Bureau and other groups in Richmond, Virginia to care for formerly enslaved men, women, and children. Most of her patients had no access to medical care aside from what the Freedmen’s Bureau provided owing to poverty, lack of resources, and racism. In the late 1860s she returned to Boston, treating patients regardless of ability to pay and despite the trouble she faced getting her prescriptions filled by pharmacists, the ridicule she received from other doctors, and the lack of admitting privileges because of her race.
Dr. Crumpler stopped practicing medicine in 1880. In 1883, she published a book based on notes kept during the practice, titled A Book of Medical Discourses, which is believed to be the first medical text written by an African American author.
Dr. Crumpler died from fibroid tumors in 1895, when she was just 64 years old. She was buried without a headstone, an oversight that was finally remedied in 2020.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie, a Polish-born physicist and chemist that later moved to France, is best known for her pioneering work on radioactivity (a term she coined). It led to her becoming the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win a Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two scientific fields (physics and chemistry).
Marie is responsible for several advancements in medicine. She directed the world’s first studies into treating neoplasms with radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institute in Paris in 1920 and the Curie Institute in Warsaw in 1932, both of which are still major medical research facilities today. During World War I, she developed mobile radiography units to provide X-ray services in field hospitals, greatly improving care for wounded soldiers by obviating the need to amputate where limbs could instead be saved. It is estimated that over one million soldiers were treated with her mobile X-ray units, affectionately referred to as petites Curies (“Little Curies”).
Unfortunately, the damaging effects of radiation were not known in her time, and ultimately, Marie succumbed to aplastic anemia in 1934 believed to have been the result of her long-term radiation exposure.
Marie’s contributions to physics and chemistry were profound, but so too were her contributions to society. She overcame significant barriers placed in her way because of her gender, and is today recognized as a feminist precursor.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to receive an MD, paved the way for women doctors, ultimately opening her own medical college for women. She was inspired to enter medicine by a dying friend who said her situation would have been better with a female doctor.
But there were few medical colleges at the time and none that accepted women. Indeed, Dr. Blackwell was rejected everywhere she applied except for Geneva College in rural New York, whose acceptance letter was reportedly meant as a practical joke. The joke was on them, though; despite facing rampant discrimination from her professors and derision from the townspeople for defying her gender role, Dr. Blackwell graduated first in her class in 1849. Afterward she continued her training in hospitals in London and Paris, emphasizing preventive care and personal hygiene after she realized male doctors were causing epidemics by not washing their hands between patients.
Dr. Blackwell returned to New York City in 1851, where discrimination hampered her practice. So she opened her own clinic treating poor women. In 1857, she opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which provided positions for women physicians. And in 1868, she opened the Woman’s Medical College at the Infirmary.
In 1869, Dr. Blackwell moved permanently to England, leaving her sister as the administrator of the Infirmary and school. She established a successful private practice, helped found the National Health Society in 1871, and became a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1875. She served in the latter role until 1907, when an injury forced her to retire.
Dorothea Dix (1802-1887)
Dorothea, an early 19th century activist, dramatically changed the medical field, championing mental health and aid for indigenous populations, challenging 19th century notions of reform and illness in the process.
Dorothea started off as a teacher, but repeated illnesses forced her to quit. Physicians suggested she spend time in Europe, and while doing so she met a group of reformers interested in changing how the mentally ill were cared for. When she returned to the US, she toured mental hospitals across the country, reporting her findings to politicians and pushing for reform. She eventually established asylums in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Illinois.
Dorothea’s work also had a profound impact on nursing. During the Civil War she served as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army, establishing a corps of nurses that were extremely successful in the war. She pushed for formal training and more opportunities for women nurses at a time when male doctors openly expressed disdain for them.
Dorothea continued fighting for social reform throughout her life. Her work in mental health reform led to the restructuring of many US and foreign hospitals.
Dr. Crumpler, Marie Curie, Dr. Blackwell, and Dorothea Dix are just a sampling of the incredible women who have contributed to the advancement of medicine around the world. Since we are all only as strong as our weakest links, the world owes much to these pioneering women.