Female Medical Pioneers
By: Jaclyn Kotora, Contributing Writer
As Women’s History Month continues, it is important to recognize and celebrate the women who went on to change the medical field and improve the health of millions, despite stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudices. Doctors Elizabeth Blackwell, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, and Mary Putnam Jacobi are a few of many women who broke barriers and paved the way for future women in the medical field.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, born near Bristol, England, in 1821, became the first woman in America to receive an M.D. She faced many early challenges, as it was extremely difficult for women of her time to attend college, especially those wishing to work in medicine. One person even suggested that she disguise as a male, but she confidently declined such an idea, stating, “It was to my mind a moral crusade... It must be pursued in the light of day, and with public sanction, in order to accomplish its end.” After being rejected to every school she applied to, she eventually was admitted to Geneva College; although, her acceptance letter had been intended to be a practical joke. Nevertheless, Blackwell attended Geneva and faced countless challenges and discrimination. She was shunned for defying the gender role of women at the time, and she was often excluded or separated from labs and lectures at the college. However, she soon proved them wrong, as she graduated in 1849, first in her class. After college, she gained experience at hospitals in London and Paris, where she advocated for the preventative care and personal hygiene of all hospital staff. Returning to America in 1851, Blackwell soon opened a clinic for poor women with the help of her Quaker friends. Six years later, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with a mission to provide more job opportunities for female physicians. In 1868, she opened a medical college in New York City. Elizabeth Blackwell pioneered in promoting education for women in medicine, and her efforts encouraged and supported women who wished to pursue working in the medical field.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American woman to earn an M.D. degree in the United States, challenged the face of medicine as she overcame gender and racial prejudices. Born in Delaware, 1831, Crumpler was inspired by her aunt, who nursed the sick throughout the neighborhood. In her book, Book of Medical Discourses, she writes, "It may be well to state here that, having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others.” After working as a nurse for eight years in Massachusetts, Crumpler was admitted to the New England Female Medical College, graduating in 1864, becoming the first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree, and the only African American to graduate from the college. After the Civil War, she cared for freed slaves and others who had no access to medical care, a practice that cost her to face heavy racism and sexism. She returned to Boston with this new experience, where she served patients, mainly children, in her home, regardless of if she got paid or not. Her work throughout her career testifies to her talent in the medical field and her love to help those in need, in spite of the double discrimination and prejudices.
Born in 1842, Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi was a relentless advocate for women’s education, who supported her arguments for women’s rights with science. She was a respected and esteemed scientist, medical practitioner, and teacher. In 1864 Jacobi received an M.D. degree from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. To earn a better medical education than the one offered to her in the U.S., she moved to Paris and became the first woman to study at l’École de Médecine. After, Jacobi returned to New York, where she continued to speak up for women as she argued for co-education in medical practices and helped change educational standards. At the same time, Jacobi organized the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women, where she further addressed these gender injustices and inequalities. Additionally, she became the first female member of the New York Pathological Society and the New York Academy of Medicine. During this time, she began exposing common menstruation myths, something that is regarded as one of her most impactful contributions to the medical field. Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi persistently advocated for women’s rights, setting a new standard for medical education.
These pioneers changed the face of medicine through their hard work, perseverance, and bravery. They proved doubters wrong by becoming some of the first women to obtain medical degrees and create successful organizations to combat gender discrimination. As we continue celebrating these inspiring women, let us reflect on their notable actions and pave our own ways to achieve our goals.
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