Women’s History Month is the perfect time to talk about some of the most famous female doctors in US history. Not only did they improve this country’s healthcare, but their determination paved the way for women and minorities to thrive in the medical field.
British-born Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the US to earn a medical degree.
After Blackwell’s friend told her how embarrassing it was to see male doctors, Blackwell decided to become a physician. Unfortunately, many medical schools rejected her because of her gender. When the Geneva Medical College in New York accepted her application in 1847, the student body called it “an administrative practical joke.”
Despite opposition from professors and students, Blackwell graduated first in her class in 1849. She went to Europe and performed many successful surgeries. During one operation, she caught a disease that made her go blind in one eye.
Although Blackwell couldn’t perform surgeries anymore, she continued to blaze trails for women in medicine. She returned to New York and set up a private practice. Years later, she founded a women’s medical school and two clinics for poor women and children.
Watch this video about Elizabeth Blackwell’s accomplishments.
Despite the gender and racial prejudices of her time, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the US.
Crumpler grew up in Pennsylvania with her aunt. After seeing her aunt take care of the sick people in her community, Crumpler decided to pursue a career in medicine.
In 1852, she moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, and worked as a nurse for several doctors. Impressed by her skills, these doctors recommended her to New England Female Medical College, one of the few women’s medical schools at the time, according to Femi Lewis’ ThoughtCo article in November 2020.
Though some professors treated her unfairly because of her race, she graduated in 1864 and established a medical practice in Boston for poor women and children.
She shared medical advice for women and children in her Book of Medical Discourses, published in 1883 — one of the very first medical publications by an African American.
While growing up on the Omaha Reservation, Susan La Flesche saw a white, male doctor refuse to treat an American Indian woman. This motivated her to become the first female Native American in the US to earn a medical degree.
After graduating in 1889 as valedictorian, she returned home and spent the next 20 years treating thousands of patients. This meant walking hundreds of miles to tribe members’ homes and treating deadly diseases like tuberculosis and cholera, according to Carson Vaughan from Smithsonian Magazine in March 2017.
For years she dreamed of opening a hospital on the reservation. Eventually, she helped raise funds to build a hospital in Walthill, Nebraska. After she died in 1915, the institution became Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital.
Already a practicing physician, Mary Edwards Walker volunteered her services during the Civil War. The Union Army assigned her to the Patent Office Hospital in Washington D.C. where she strove to improve military medical care.
Walker also organized the Women’s Relief Association to provide shelter for soldiers’ mothers, wives, and children. When no lodging was available, Walker offered to let these women and children stay in her home.
In 1862, she took a break from volunteer work to earn a second medical degree from New York Hygeia Therapeutic College. She returned to the war effort and served as an assistant surgeon in tent hospitals in Virginia and Tennessee.
Walker also treated civilians in the neighboring countryside. While she was traveling to see a patient, Confederate soldiers captured and imprisoned her in Castle Thunder, near Richmond, VA. Walker complained so much about how unhealthy the meals were that the soldiers started feeding prisoners more grains and vegetables. They released her just four months later.
She continued to provide medical care at various facilities until the end of the war. In 1865, President Andrew Johson awarded her the Congressional Medal of Honor, making her the first woman to receive this recognition.
In 1916, Margaret Chung graduated from the University of Southern California Medical School, becoming the first American-born Chinese female doctor in the US.
A devout Christian, Chung applied to be a medical missionary but was rejected because of her race, according to Annie Wilson’s March 2021 article for Columbia Medical Association. Determined to work as a doctor, Chung completed her residency in Chicago. Then, she moved to Los Angeles and became a well-known surgeon among Hollywood celebrities.
During WWII, Chung volunteered to serve as a surgeon. Instead, the government asked her to recruit pilots for a unit that became known as the “Flying Tigers.” These pilots became like her sons. Throughout the war, she sent them letters and Christmas gifts to keep them in good spirits.
Using her connections with celebrities and politicians, Chung lobbied for the formation of the U.S. Naval Women’s Reserve (WAVES). Fortunately, she was not allowed to join WAVE herself due to her age, race, and suspected LGBQ+ identity, according to The Legacy Project.
Chung died of cancer in 1959 at the age of 69.
New Jersey-native Virginia Apgar graduated fourth in her class from Columbia University and in 1938, became the first woman to head a department at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, according to Jone Johnson Lewis’ ThoughtCo article in November 2017.
While working as a professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University, Apgar made medical breakthroughs that increased infant survival rates in the US. She developed a procedure (the Apgar Newborn Scoring System) that checked a baby’s heart rate, breathing, skin tone, and muscles. She also discovered that injecting a mother with certain anesthetics harmed the unborn infant. Thanks to Apgar’s research, physicians stopped using these drugs.
After earning a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1959, Apgar devoted the rest of her career to preventing birth defects. She helped raise funds for medical research, lectured at colleges, and served with several public health organizations, including the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes), according to Changing the Face of Medicine.
After graduating with honors from Hunter College at 19, Gertrude Elion struggled to find a job because no one wanted to hire a female chemist. Despite this setback, Elion worked as a part-time lab assistant and substitute high school teacher while earning her master’s degree in chemistry.
Elion’s career took off when she started working with Dr. George H. Hitchings at a pharmaceutical company in 1944. Instead of using the traditional trial-and-error approach, Elion developed medicines by comparing normal human cells with pathogens (microorganisms that cause disease). She created drugs to prevent kidney transplant rejection and treat major illnesses such as leukemia, herpes, and AIDS.
Her research saved lives and earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in Medicine in 1988.
Ironically, Elion never obtained a doctorate or went to medical school. But after her successful career, she received an honorary Ph.D. from Polytechnic University of New York and a Doctor of Science degree from Harvard University.
Born in Puerto Rico, Antonia Novello moved to the US where she earned a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University.
In the early ’80s, she advised legislators on health issues such as organ transplants and tobacco-related diseases. Impressed with her expertise, President George Bush appointed her as US Surgeon General, making her the first Hispanic to serve in that role.
While serving as surgeon general, she increased the public’s awareness of smoking-related health problems. She also improved AIDS education and advocated for better health care for minorities.
In 1993, she joined the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and fought to prevent substance abuse, smoking, and nutritional problems like iodine deficiency.
As New York State Department of Health commissioner, Novello improved Medicaid and other health programs to make health care more affordable.
She received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in 2002.