Great Female Doctors Who Transformed the World of Medicine
Published February 19th, 2020
For thousands of years, women have been confined to various stereotypes. If we look at ancient literature, women were either relegated to concubines or the love interest of some heroic knight. But historical records prove that women had been kicking ass since forever (just think of Cleopatra and Boudicca).
Women have made significant contributions to the field of medicine too. This despite the profession being historically dominated by men. In fact, many of the medical treatments we have today have their roots in the practices of ancient women healers.
Here are some of the greatest female doctors who transformed the world of medicine:
Ancient Greece had its own fair share of great thinkers and scientists. But what most history books fail to mention is the legacy of Metrodora.
She was a Greek female physician who lived between 200 to 400 CE. She also authored “On the Diseases and Cures of Women”, the oldest medical textbook written by a woman. It covers various areas of medicine including gynecology and women’s hygiene. Her book was referenced by many medical writers in both ancient Greece and Rome. Unfortunately, nothing more is known about her save for her name.
Jane Cooke Wright
Descended from a family of doctors, Dr. Jane Wright broke social and racial boundaries. She is best known for her research on chemotherapy and the use of methotrexate in treating skin and breast cancer. Her pioneering technique of using human tissue cultures made chemotherapy as the primary cure for cancer.
Despite losing sight in one eye, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell became one of the most famous women in medicine. After working as a nurse, she pursued and earned a degree in medicine – the first woman to do so.
Because of her gender, employment opportunities were scarce. Nobody was willing to hire a female doctor. This led her to open the New York Infirmary in 1857. Her hospital focused on caring for the poor. She also took in women apprentices so they can get the training and experience needed to become physicians themselves.
Gertrude B. Elion
Despite having a bachelor’s degree majoring in Chemistry, no one took Dr. Gertrude Elion seriously. She is, after all, a woman and it was 1937. But this did not prevent her from winning a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (one of only a handful of women to do so).
Along with two other doctors, Elion developed a drug that combats childhood leukemia. Her research was also instrumental in developing drugs for malaria, gout, and kidney stones.
Having lived through two world wars and discrimination because of her gender and religion, Dr. Gerty definitely broke barriers. She was the third woman and the first American woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Science.
Working with her husband, she discovered how glycogen is broken down and reused by the body as a source of energy. This hallmark study paved the way for developing viable treatment options for diabetes.
Susan La Flesche Picotte
Being the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree in the US, Dr. Picotte was one of the most remarkable women of her time.
After getting her degree, she returned to the Omaha Reservation in 1889. There she cared for members of her tribe and lobbied for the prohibition of alcohol in the reservation. She also provided financial, legal and spiritual guidance to them. While battling a terminal illness, she opened up a hospital in the reservation. This helped significantly improve the lives of Native Americans in the area.
Helen Brooke Taussig
Dr. Taussig’s determination to prove herself in the field of Medicine came from a very personal source. Despite studying histology, anatomy, and bacteriology, both Harvard Medical School and Boston University didn’t allow her to earn a degree. She was also prohibited from speaking to her classmates in fear that she might “contaminate” them.
In 1949, she published Congenital Malformations of the Heart. This effectively made her a pioneer in the field of pediatric cardiology. She was also the first woman to be elected president of the American Heart Association.
Mussolini’s fascist rule and World War II did not deter Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini’s pursuit of a career in neurobiology. During the war, she put up a small laboratory in her bedroom and continued her research on the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos.
Her efforts paid off. In 1986, she received a Nobel Prize in Physiology for her discovery of the nerve growth factor. It is a protein determining cell growth due to stimulated nerve tissue. Her work opened a whole new field of research in neurobiology.
Defying her father’s wishes, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross went on to become one of the greatest psychiatrists of her time.
She is best known as a pioneer in the study of pain, grief, and healing. In her book “On Death and Dying,” she establishes the different stages dying patients go through. Her work gave medical professionals a deeper understanding of what terminally-ill patients go through. This led to better end-of-life care for them.
Dubbed as the “Mother of Neuroblastoma,” Dr. Audrey Evans pioneered the study and treatment of childhood cancers. She was also one of the first to research on Autologous bone marrow transplantation.
The Evans Aging System for neuroblastoma also saved hundreds of children from the pain and stressful effects of chemotherapy. She also founded the first Ronald McDonald House, which provided shelter to families of children with cancer while they are receiving treatment.
Having learned to read and write at four, Dr. Ana Aslan was destined for great pursuits. But, as a woman, her path to getting a medical degree wasn’t easy. She had to go on a hunger strike to convince her mother to accept her choice of career.
Dr. Aslan went on to establish the Geriatric Institute of Bucharest – the first of its kind in the world. Her work in physiology led her to discover the anti-aging effects of procaine. She also developed the Gerovital H3 and Aslavital. These drugs are well-known for delaying the skin aging process.
Have you ever had surgery? If yes, then you can thank Dr. Apgar for making it less painful for you.
She originally wanted to be a surgeon, but that field of Medicine was inhospitable to female doctors. Fortunately, a colleague convinced her to focus on anesthesiology. It proved to be the right decision. She is now considered one of the earliest pioneers of anesthesiology. She also established the Apgar Score – the first standardized tool to evaluate newborns.
Mary Steichen Calderone
Dr. Mary Calderone left an acting career behind to pursue her passion: Medicine. She went on to become a legendary physician and a staunch advocate of sexual health.
At a time when sex was considered a taboo topic, Dr. Calderone persisted in promoting sex education. She also established the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States. Through this, she implemented programs to educate young adults on safe sex.
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About The Author
Judy Ponio is a firm believer in the power of knowledge when it comes to whole body donation and she wants to share her experience with the world. She also loves to write about food and art.