Celebrating Crucial Women in Healthcare

4th March 2022

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is important to remember that women in science have had a much harder time than their male equivalents. For centuries, women were barred from pursuing a career in healthcare unless they worked as a nurse or midwife. In fact, the first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell, was not registered in the UK until 1858. 

The struggle for equality rages on, but there are many women who have been determined to succeed in what has traditionally been a man’s world. Their courage has led to incredible improvements in health worldwide, and in this article we will celebrate some of the most influential women in global healthcare. 

Metrodora: author of the oldest medical text written by a woman

In around 200-400 CE, Metrodora worked as a Greek physician. She was heavily influenced by Hippocrates and went on to write one of the oldest medical texts known to have been authored by a woman. Her book, On the Diseases and Cures of Women, was later referenced by many other medical writers in the Ancient Greek and Roman era. 

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910): the first female doctor

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Blackwell’s determination to become a doctor followed the illness of a friend who remarked that, if she had been cared for by a woman, her suffering would likely have been lessened. 

Blackwell was the first woman registered with the General Medical Council in the UK, after entering via a loophole that allowed foreign female doctors to register. Blackwell is seen as a pioneer who promoted medical education for women. Each year, the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal is awarded to a woman who has positively influenced the promotion of women in medicine.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1838-1895): the first African American doctor

Rebecca Lee Crumpler is celebrated as the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Her entry to medical school occurred only after working as a nurse for almost a decade, and with recommendations from the doctors she worked beneath. When she graduated in 1864, she was the only black graduate.

Crumpler treated those who had been formerly enslaved, but faced ongoing racism and sexism. She later claimed this only increased her desire to work as a doctor.

Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906): menstruation myth-buster

Mary Putnam Jacobi was awarded a medical degree in 1864. She strongly disagreed with a Harvard Professor who claimed that studying, or any other form of ‘exertion’, was dangerous for women during menstruation. With a strong counterargument, Jacobi proved that women were strong and stable regardless of the day of their menstrual cycle. Her evidence was later awarded the prestigious Boylston Prize. 

By disproving this menstruation myth, Jacobi helped women to fight for their right to study (or to take part in other activities) at any time in their menstrual cycle.

Marie Curie (1867-1934): pioneer of x-rays and cancer treatment

Marie Curie was a Polish scientist who often worked in collaboration with her husband, Pierre. Curie facilitated great advances in medicine as a result of her influence in the development of x-ray imaging in the assessment of bones, organs and other internal structures. At the time, the only other way to assess internal structures was via invasive open surgery. Curie’s discovery not only reduced the need for operations, but also aided the development of radiotherapy for treating cancers.

Curie and her daughter are credited with providing x-ray facilities for soldiers injured on the front-line during World War 1. This led to prompt, and more effective, treatment.

Curie’s work was recognised with Nobel Prizes in Physics in 1903, and in Chemistry in 1911. She remains the only woman to have ever received the prestigious prize more than once.

Gerty Cori (1896-1957): provided key insights into diabetes

In 1947, Gerty Cori was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She is credited with discovering the ‘Cori cycle’, an explanation of how sugar is broken down in the body. Cori’s work provided vital information in the quest to manage patients with diabetes and other metabolic or enzyme disorders.

Virginia Apgar (1909-1974): vital assessments of babies at birth

Virginia Apgar developed a quick, but essential, assessment to be performed on all babies at birth. Known as the Apgar Score, it is still used in medical practice today. The score helps doctors and midwives to immediately assess the wellbeing of babies the minute they are born, and five minutes later. It has been celebrated for its role in greatly reducing the mortality rate of infants.

Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999): developing drugs to fight leukaemia

Known as “Trudy”, Gertrude Belle Elion, was a chemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988. She worked tirelessly to develop over 40 treatments that could influence the immune system. Her work was vital in providing novel ways to fight cancers including leukaemia, to effectively treat AIDS, and to prevent rejection following organ transplantation.  

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958): a pioneer in DNA

Rosalind Franklin is a British scientist whose work led to the greatest advances in genetics. She not only discovered the double helix, but also delved into RNA and its implications in virus multiplication in illnesses such as polio. 

Franklin is sometimes referred to as a “forgotten heroine.” Many of her discoveries went unrecognised during her lifetime and were instead attributed to the men she worked with. Posthumously, her incredible role in a male-dominated environment has been better understood. It is likely that Franklin would have been awarded a Nobel Prize if not for her premature death to ovarian cancer at the age of 37.

Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011): developed infection screening techniques

Rosalyn Yalow developed the radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique which could be used to diagnose conditions including diabetes, and scan blood donations for infections including hepatitis and HIV. Yalow was the second woman (after Gerty Cori) to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Patricia Goldman-Rakic (1937-2003): tireless research into cognition

Patricia Goldman-Rakic dedicated her professional life to studying the brain. She is remembered for her significant contributions to the study of memory, which later assisted the understanding of neurological diseases including cerebral palsy and dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Goldman-Rakic was also an early pioneer in the study of dopamine, for which she is credited with today’s understanding of Parkinson’s disease, ADHD and schizophrenia.

An annual prize is awarded in Goldman-Rakic’s name to an outstanding scientist who continues her work in the study of memory or cognition.

Francoise Barré-Sinoussi (1947-present): understanding the AIDS crisis

Francoise Barré-Sinoussi is a French scientist. Her work was fundamental to identifying and understanding HIV during the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s. By isolating and growing the HIV retrovirus that had been removed from a patient’s lymph node, Barré-Sinoussi paved the way for the development of HIV testing, anti-retroviral treatment and the required public health advice to control viral spread. She has been recognised at an international level, and is a consultant to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Many female scientists and doctors have worked tirelessly to prove their worth in a traditionally male world, and to pave the way for the women and girls in their wake. Our list is not exhaustive, and there are many more empowering and brave women we can celebrate for their contribution to healthcare.