Every year, March is designated as National Women’s History Month in the United States. Because we believe that women have always been an integral part of the medical field, we would like to honor a few of the women who paved the way for us.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)
Dr. Blackwell was the first American female doctor, having applied to 12 medical schools before Geneva Medical College in Upstate New York admitted her. It is said she was admitted based on the idea that she would soon get tired of the antics of her fellow classmates and lose interest, therefore dropping her studies. She proved them all wrong and graduated with her medical degree in two years (1849). Blackwell would start an infirmary for poor women and children in New York and later train nurses during the Civil War. She would co-found the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, the first medical school for women in Britain. Because of Dr. Blackwell, more women went on to pursue their dreams in medicine.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)
Dr. Crumpler was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree. She attended the New England Female Medical College in Boston and graduated in 1864. After the Civil War, she and her husband moved to Richmond, Virginia where she worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau providing medical care for a large population of freed slaves. In 1883, Crumpler wrote what may be the first medical book by an African American author. The book was titled “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts” and was dedicated “to mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” Dr. Crumpler died in Boston in 1895.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Virginia Apgar (1909-1974)
Receiving her medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1933, Apgar would train as an anesthesiologist and become Columbia’s first female full professor in 1949. Her work was focused on anesthesia and childbirth. She created the Apgar test (Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration) in 1953 and it is still used today to assess the health of newborns. In 1959, Apgar left Columbia and started working for the March of Dimes where she focused on the problems of premature birth. She was also an advocate for the rubella vaccine. She served as the clinical professor of pediatrics at Cornell University School of Medicine, where she taught teratology (the study of birth defects).
Gertrude Elion (1918-1999)
Elion was an American biochemist and pharmacologist who graduated from Hunter College in New York City in 1937. She was unable to obtain a graduate research position because she was a woman so she found work as a lab assistant (1937), an assistant organic chemist (1938-1939), a chemistry and physics teaching position (1940-1942), and a research chemist at Johnson & Johnson (1943-1944). In 1944, she started working at Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories (later becoming GlaxoSmithKline). She was instrumental in developing drugs that were effective against leukemia, autoimmune disorders, urinary tract infections, gout, malaria, and viral herpes. Though she officially retired in 1983, she helped oversee the development of azidothymidine, the first drug used in the treatment of AIDS. Along with Hitchings (whom she worked with at Burroughs) she shared the 1988 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the development of drugs used to treat several major diseases. In 1991 she was awarded a National Medal of Science and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
We thank all of these ground-breaking women of science for their steadfastness in pursuing their dreams of working in medicine.