March marks National Women’s History Month —a great time to celebrate the history of women’s healthcare and the amazing progress we’ve made over the centuries. In part one of this series, we’ll look at pioneering female doctors and review how they helped change the fate of medical history. In part two, we will discuss some key innovations in women’s healthcare and how they shaped how you’re cared for today.
Three women who impacted the future of women’s healthcare:
Elizabeth Blackwell—first American female doctor (1821-1910)
Born in England, Elizabeth Blackwell moved with her family to Cincinnati when she was 11. Ironically, Blackwell claimed that she “hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book.” But when a dying friend suggested that a female physician would have better eased her suffering, Elizabeth committed to becoming a doctor.
Blackwell applied to 12 medical schools before Geneva Medical College in upstate New York finally accepted her in 1847. Two years later, on January 23, 1849, she became the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. Blackwell would go on to start an infirmary for poor women and children in New York and later helped train nurses during the Civil War. She also made frequent trips to Europe and in 1874 co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, the first medical school for women in Britain, setting the stage for more women to pursue their dreams in medicine.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler—first African-American female doctor (1831-1895)
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born in Delaware in 1831 but grew up in Pennsylvania, where she helped her aunt provide medical care to the sick. In 1860, Crumpler applied and was accepted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston, a school established in 1848 to train women as doctors. She graduated in 1864—the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree.
After the Civil War, Crumpler and her husband moved to Richmond, Va., where she worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide medical care for a large population of freed slaves. Later, she returned to Boston with her husband and practiced medicine there. In 1883 she wrote what may be the first medical book by an African-American author, “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” which she dedicated “to mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” Crumpler died in Boston in 1895 but is remembered as a true pioneer, not only for women but for African Americans hoping to overcome issues of race and prejudice.
Virginia Apgar—inventor of the Apgar score (1909-1974)
Born in Westfield, New Jersey, in 1909, Virginia Apgar received her medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (CUCPS) in 1933. Trained as an anesthesiologist, Apgar would become Columbia’s first female full professor in 1949. She focused her work on anesthesia and childbirth. Her well-known Apgar test, which she created in 1953, is still used today to assess the health of newborns.
Apgar left Columbia in 1959 and began working for the March of Dimes. In her leadership roles there, she pushed for more attention to be paid to the problems of premature birth. Apgar was also an advocate for childhood vaccination against rubella. From 1971 to 1974 she served as clinical professor of pediatrics at Cornell University School of Medicine, where she taught teratology (the study of birth defects) and became the school’s first professor in this area of pediatrics.
For her work as a physician, educator, and advocate Apgar received numerous awards and honors. Somehow she also found time to play the violin, build musical instruments, work in her garden, and learn to fly small planes.
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