Women in Medicine

By March 17, 2016Health Tips

The fascinating on-line exhibition, “Changing the Face of Medicine” sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, provides insight into the inspiration, influences and accomplishments of many women who have had a major impact on health care in the United States.  Today’s Health Tip recognizes just a small sampling of those remarkable women who literally changed the face of medicine.

womenClara Barton (1821-1912) Trained as a teacher, not as a nurse, Clara Barton is one of the best known women in medicine. During the Civil War, Clara distributed medical supplies, provided nursing care, and gave emotional support to hundreds of soldiers.  Known as the “Angel of the Battlefield”, she risked her life by tending to soldiers who were wounded in action.  Following the war and experience with the Red Cross in Europe, she founded the American Red Cross and later the National First Aid Association.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1910) In 1849, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school. Her inspiration for entering medicine was the death of a close female friend whom she felt could have better served by a woman physician.  Along with her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, she started the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, providing training for women doctors and medical care for the poor. Late in her career, Dr. Blackwell wrote a book, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, encouraging women to enter the field of medicine.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler  (1831 – 1895) The first formally trained African-American physician earned her “Doctress” of Medicine degree from the New England Female Medical College in 1860.  She was married to a former fugitive slave, Arthur Crumpler, who had served in the Union army during the Civil War.  Following the war, she moved to Virginia and cared for freed slaves who did not have access to medical care.  In 1883, she wrote the book, A Book of Medical Discourses, in which she described the progression of experiences that led her to study and practice medicine.

Virginia Apgar  (1909-1974)  Best known as the developer of the Apgar score, a means of assessing the health of newborn children immediately after birth, Dr. Apgar the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Never being one to be intimidated by her male colleagues in medicine she famously said, “women are liberated from the time they leave the womb.”  In addition to developing the Apgar score, she was also influential in efforts to prevent birth defects and infant mortality. Late in her career she became the director of the division of congenital defects at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes).

Dr. Helen Taussig (1898 – 1986) Despite disabilities including dyslexia and hearing loss, Dr. Taussig was a pioneer in pediatric heart surgery.  She and a colleague developed a procedure known as the Blalock-Taussig operation, the first real cure for “blue baby” syndrome. She was the first woman to become the president of the American Heart Association. Dr. Taussig also helped to avert a thalidomide birth defect crisis in the United States by bringing attention to the potential harmful effects of the drug.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross  (1926 – 2004)  Born in Switzerland, Dr. Ross was a psychiatrist whose career centered on the providing psychological support to the terminally ill and their families.  After moving to the United States in 1958, Dr. Kübler-Ross was disheartened by the lack of compassion for dying patients that she observed in this country. Her book, On Death and Dying, published in 1969 described the five stages that she had observed dying patients going through—-denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Dr. Kübler-Ross was a major advocate for humane treatment of the dying and of the concept of “death with dignity”.

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921-2011) Dr. Yalow was a medical physicist and Noble Prize winner for developing radioimmunoassay (RIA), a technique used to measure tiny quantities of various biological substances in human blood. Originally developed to measure insulin levels in diabetics, RIA is now widely used in medicine to measure other substances including infectious agents, enzymes and hormones.   Initially discouraged from entering the field of science, Dr. Yalow worked as a secretary in an academic physics department which provided her with the opportunity to pursue her studies in physics.

Joycelyn Elders  (b. 1933) A shout out to a former professor of mine, Dr. Elders was the first board certified pediatric endocrinologist in the state of Arkansas as well as being an outstanding lecturer, researcher and clinician at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.   Dr. Elders was the first African American woman appointed Surgeon General of the United States by President Bill Clinton in 1993.  Never one to mince words, Dr. Elders was eventually fired from this position for her views on sex education and advocating for access to contraceptives in schools.

Mary-Claire King (b. 1946)   Dr. King is a medical researcher with a focus on cancer biology and heredity. She was the first to describe a gene mutation, BRCA 1, which is associated with inherited forms of breast cancer.  She is an American Cancer Society Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle where she remains actively involved in genetic research.

The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that during academic years 2013-2014, 47% of medical students and 46% of medical residents were women.  Surely Drs. Blackwell and Crumpler would be astounded to learn of the near equal inclusion of women into the medical fraternity, and pleased to learn of the impact that American women have had in medicine.

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