The month of March is a time to reflect upon the struggles and milestones of women in our world and to appreciate the hard work and perseverance that have allowed many of us to lead better lives and to play a more prominent role in our society. However, the struggle is not over despite the many gains. It is easy to forget and take for granted the rights and privileges our foremothers worked so hard to gain.
Just think about how medical research and clinical care would be if it was all done by men only! What state would women’s health be in!? And not just women’s health. Many of the contributions women have made have helped everyone! Take a moment to appreciate some of the women who helped advance medicine.
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell received her M.D. degree becoming the first female physician in America. After graduating top of her class she went on to work in clinics in London and Paris and studied midwifery at La Maternité. Unfortunately, she had to give up her dream of becoming a surgeon when she lost the sight in one eye. She returned to New York City in 1851 where she hoped to establish a practice. However, she faced many obstacles due to her sex until her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, joined her in 1856, and with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska they opened the New York Infirmary for Indignent Women and Children in 1857. Then in 1868 Blackwell and her colleagues opened the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, a medical college for women to provide the training and experience they could not get in already established medical schools.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African American woman to receive her medical degree in 1864. Unfortunately, little is known about Crumpler other than her published book, Book of Medical Discourses published in 1883. In this account, Crumpler provides a window into her career journey. Crumpler moved from Boston to Richmond, VA after the Civil War and viewed her time there as a great opportunity to do “…a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” Crumpler worked alongside other African-American physicians caring for the many thousands of freed slaves who would not otherwise have had access to care. It is an amazing tribute that Crumpler was able to become a practicing physician and publish despite the racial and gender barriers of her time.
The first Native American woman to become a doctor was Susan La Flesche Picotte. Le Flesche received her medical degree in 1889 from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, graduating at the top of her class. Le Flesche continually had to bridge both the the white world and the world of her people. Despite the barriers faced by Native American women, Le Flesche worked tirelessly to improve the health conditions of her people, the Omaha nation in Nebraska. She stressed the importance of cleanliness and ventilation, specifically the benefits of fresh air, disposal of trash and killing flies and other preventative measures. When her spouse died, after years of suffering from alcoholism, she became part of the temperance movement and actively worked to rid reservations of alcohol. She left quite a legacy in her work to improve the health and lives of Native Americans. (more…)