The month of March brings with it the celebration of Women’s History Month. The field of medicine is growing and while in the past women were drastically underrepresented, the latest numbers posted by the American Association of Medical Colleges in 2010 state that just shy of half (48.3%) of medical degrees awarded in 2009-2010 were awarded to women. The American Medical Association reported that female physicians now outnumber male physicians in Pediatrics, and female residents outnumber male residents in Family Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Pathology, and Psychiatry. This celebration gives us an opportunity to reflect on the amazing accomplishments of women throughout the world, and Metro Community Health Center would like to highlight the incredible historical feats of some of the women of medicine.
Elizabeth Blackwell (2/3/1821-5/31/1910)
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in U.S. history to receive a medical degree. She vehemently fought for female representation in medicine and when she opened her own infirmary in 1857, The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, she hired female attending physicians and filled her board of trustees and executive committee with women. She co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874 before retiring from medicine in 1877.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (2/8/1831-3/9/1895)
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African-American woman to become a physician in the United States. She is the only African-American woman to receive a degree from the New England Female Medical College in Boston to date, as it closed in 1873, thirteen years after Rebecca completed her degree. She worked for a time at the Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia providing health care services to freed slaves. She eventually moved back to her native town of Boston and practiced medicine out of her home until she retired from medicine in 1833.
Clara Barton (12/25/1821-4/12/1912)
Clara Barton was the founder of the American Red Cross. She worked passionately during the American Civil War to keep hospitals stocked full of the life-saving supplies and equipment necessary to keep the wounded soldiers alive. In 1868 during a trip to Europe she was introduced to the Red Cross in Switzerland and came back to the states with a mission to open an American branch, with the intent to help post-war America by providing aide in the event of natural disasters or subsequent wars. Today the American Red Cross continues to serve Americans by providing disaster relief as well as lifesaving blood donor services.
Marie Curie (11/7/1867-7/4/1934)
Marie Curie was a renowned physicist and chemist who revolutionized the medical field with her research on radioactivity. Her research resulted in techniques that are still used today to treat neoplasms, or tumors. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and is the only woman to win two, one in Physics and one in Chemistry, making her the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different fields. Along with her accomplishments in radiology, she discovered two elements that were added to the Periodic Table; polonium and radium. She passed away of anaplastic anemia in 1934, now known to be a direct result from her prolonged exposure to radiation over the course of her career and the fact that no protections were in place at the time of her studies.
Henrietta Lacks (8/1/1920-10/4/1951)
Henrietta lacks was not a physician nor was she a scientist. She is however responsible for many medical breakthroughs, including the polio vaccine and research advances in cancer, AIDS, gene mapping, and the biological effects of radiation. Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore Maryland. In less than 6 months the cancer had gotten the best of her. Physicians overseeing her treatment before her passing had taken, without her consent, cell samples of her tumor. These samples turned out to be revolutionary to the medical field, as they were able to be divided and re-divided over a long period of time without the cells dying. These “immortal calls”, known today as HeLa cells, were then divided and passed from researcher to researcher all across the country, and eventually all across the world. The story of Henrietta Lacks calls to question the ethics of consent within the medical field, and her story is being featured in an HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey on April 22nd, 2017.
Selma Dritz (6/29/1917-9/3/2008)
Selma Dritz was a physician and epidemiologist who was hired by the city of San Francisco in 1968 as the assistant director of the CDC. In the 1980’s she was one of the first physicians to recognize the symptoms of what became known as HIV/AIDS. Paul Volberding, former president of the International AIDS Society, sang Dritz’s praises, stating that Dritz was “the most important person” involved with tracing cases of AIDS and discovering how the epidemic was spreading.
Antonia Novello was the first woman and first Hispanic appointed to the position of Surgeon General in the United States. She served under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and during her tenure she advocated healthcare initiatives for women, children, and minorities. She also focused much of her time on the issue of underage drinking and tobacco use, openly criticizing Big Tobacco for using cartoons to market towards younger audiences.
Mary-Claire King is most notably known for identifying BRCA 1, the gene that is responsible for many types of breast and ovarian cancers. This discovery is what allows “at-risk” individuals the ability to be tested to see whether or not they carry the gene, and plan accordingly. Beyond her research on cancer genes, King also used genomic sequencing to help identify children in Argentina who may have been victims of human trafficking during the Dirty War of 1976-1983. By looking at the children’s mitochondrial DNA, she could definitively tell whether or not the children had been born to the families who had likely captured them, resulting in children being reunited with their birth families.
Michelle Obama used her role as First Lady to make a difference in regards to health care in America. Her “Let’s Move!” initiative founded in 2010 focused on the child obesity epidemic effecting the country. She set a goal of decreasing childhood obesity rates to 5% by 2030, and put forth the mission of encouraging children to eat healthier foods and increase physical activity. She also fought for better food labeling so that consumers could be more aware of what they were putting into their bodies.
Biographic information in this article was paraphrased from Wikipedia articles on the subjects, and images were downloaded from google images. Use of this material is not intended as a copyright infringement on any of the artists or any other entity’s copyrighted material.