1. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  2. National Women's History Museum. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910). Accessed January 25, 2017.
  3. Duffin J. History of Medicine: A Scandalously Short Introduction. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press; 2010.
  4. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Ann Preston. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  5. Ann Preston. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  6. Ann Preston, M.D. Papers. Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  7. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  8. Markel H. Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, first African-American woman physician. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  9. Chandler DL. Little Known Black History Fact: Rebecca Lee Crumpler. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  10. Wirtzfeld DA. The history of women in surgery. Can J Surg. 2009;52:317-320. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  11. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  12. Mary Walker. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  13. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  14. Susan La Flesche's legacy lives on. Native Daughters. University of Nebraska Lincoln. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  15. Hansen M. Susan La Flesche Picotte, first Native American doctor, turned down fame but earned place in history. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  16. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1947. Biography. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  17. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1947. Gerty Cori - Facts. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  18. Gerty Theresa Cori (1896-1957). American Chemical Society. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  19. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  20. Altman LK. Dr. Helen Taussig, 87, dies; led in blue baby operation. New York Times. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  21. Van de Kemp H. Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959). Society for the Psychology of Women. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  22. Obituary: Helen Flanders Dunbar, M.D., Ph.D. Br Med J 1959;2:584. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  23. Helen Flanders Dunbar. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  24. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Virginia Apgar. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  25. The Apgar Score on Medline Plus: Accessed January 25, 2017.
  26. The Virginia Apgar Paper's in the U.S. National Library of Medicine's Profiles in Science Series: Accessed January 25, 2017.
  27. National Library of Medicine's. Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  28. The Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation Accessed January 25, 2017.
  29. Holcomb B. Nobleaug. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 78, dies; psychiatrist revolutionized care of the terminally ill. New York Times. August 26, 2004. Accessed January 12, 2016.
  30. National Library of Medicine's. Dr. Audrey Evans. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 29, 2017.
  31. Audrey Evans, MD. National Wilms Tumor Study. Accessed January 29, 2017.
  32. Oncology Investigator, Clinician Audrey Evans, M.D., Retires. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute. Accessed January 29, 2017.
  33. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Patricia Bath. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 26, 2017.
  34. American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness Accessed January 26, 2017.
  35. Davidson M. Innovative Lives: The Right to Sight: Patricia Bath. Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Accessed January 26, 2017.
  36. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Antonia Novello. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 26, 2017.
  37. Antonia C. Novello (1990-1993). Accessed January 26, 2017.
  38. Nancy Dickey, M.D. National Library of Medicine Accessed January 26, 2017.
  39. Nancy W. Dickey, M.D. Rural and Community Health Institute Texas A&M University. Accessed January 27, 2017.
  40. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Nancy Dickey. Changing the Face of Medicine. Accessed January 27, 2017.

Contributor Information

Steven Rourke
Freelance writer

Disclosure: Steven Rourke has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Close<< Medscape

Women Physicians Who Changed the Course of American Medicine

Steven Rourke  |  February 3, 2017

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Slide 1

One hundred and sixty-eight years ago, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States. Since then, the field of medicine has progressed with important contributions from the many women who followed in Dr Blackwell's footsteps. To celebrate National Women Physician Day, we've compiled the career highlights of some of the United States' most inspiring female physicians.

Image from Dreamstime

Slide 2

Dr Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)

In 1849, British-born Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.[1-3]

At the time, medical schools were firmly closed to women. When Dr Blackwell was finally admitted to the Geneva Medical School in New York, she had already studied medicine independently and submitted multiple applications. Even then, she was only accepted after the all-male student body had voted to approve the admission of a woman (reportedly "as a joke").[1]

By opening the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (with her sister Dr Emily Blackwell as well as Dr Marie Zakrzewska), Dr Blackwell extended care to the underserved while helping pave the way for generations of women in medicine.[1]

Dr Blackwell decided to become a doctor when a dying friend confided that she would have suffered less had her physician been a woman.[1] She wrote about her experiences in Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, published in 1895.[2]

Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 3

Dr Ann Preston (1813-1872)

Ann Preston, MD, in 1866, became the first female dean of a US-based medical school. Like Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, she dedicated her career to the care of patients and the provision of opportunities for women to study medicine.[4]

Following rounds of rejections from medical schools, Ann Preston entered the first year of the new, Quaker-supported Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, from which she graduated in 1851. She stayed on for graduate studies, was appointed professor of physiology, and eventually became dean and member of the board.[4-6]

Frequently the target of attack, the College nevertheless thrived under Preston's guidance and with the support of an advisory board of "lady managers"—wealthy supporters solicited by Dr Preston.[4] The College itself blazed trails by training the first black and Native American female doctors. Under Dr Blackwell's guidance, the College also created social programs meant to educate poor women about hygiene and physiology.[5]

Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 4

Dr Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

In 1864, Dr Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first black woman to earn an MD degree in the United States. She is also celebrated as one of the first black authors of a medical publication (A Book of Medical Discourses).[7-9]

Born in Delaware and raised in the Philadelphia region, Rebecca Lee Crumpler worked as a nurse before gaining admittance to the New England Female Medical College.[7]

Following graduation, she practiced briefly in Boston before moving to Richmond in the period right after the end of the Civil War. In Richmond, in the face of intense discrimination, Dr Crumpler practiced alongside other black doctors to care for freed slaves. As a tireless community activist, she worked in association with the Freedmen's Bureau as well as with community and missionary groups.[7]

To give further perspective to Dr Crumpler's achievements: In 1860, at the approximate time that she became the first black female physician, only 300 of the 54,543 physicians in the United States were women.[8]

Slide 5

Dr Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919)

When she graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1865, Mary Edwards Walker, MD, was among the first wave of women in the United States to earn an MD degree. Among her many accomplishments, she is thought to be the United States' first female surgeon and was also the first female surgeon in the US army.

Dr Edwards Walker was active as a nurse, physician, and surgeon during the Civil War. For her contributions to the army during this tumultuous period, in which she was captured and imprisoned, Dr Edwards Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1865. She was the first woman to achieve this distinction.[10-12]

Originally from upstate New York, Dr Walker was an outspoken advocate for women's health, suffrage, and dress reform.[10-12]

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 6

Dr Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)

In 1889, Susan La Flesche Picotte became the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree,[13,14] 35 years before Native Americans were recognized as US citizens.[15]

The daughter of Chief Joseph La Flesche, she grew up on the Omaha Reservation in northeast Nebraska and was encouraged to study. She was sent to school in New Jersey and returned to the East Coast after gaining admission to university and then to the Woman's Medical College. She became the first person to receive federal aid for professional education.[13,14]

As a child, La Flesche Picotte decided on a career in medicine after witnessing an Indian patient die because a white doctor had refused to give her care.[13]

The construction of a hospital in her hometown, just before her death, is a testament to Dr La Flesche Picotte's resolve and her dedication to the health and well-being of her 1300 patients on her 450-square mile territory.[13]

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 7

Dr Gerty Cori (1896-1957)

In 1947, Gerty Cori, MD, became the first woman in the United States to earn a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the "discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen."[16,17]

Dr Cori earned her medical degree from the Medical School of the German University of Prague in 1920, before emigrating to the United States.

She dedicated her career to research in biochemistry, metabolism, and physiology. Working with her husband Dr Carl Cori (with whom she shared the Nobel Prize, alongside Dr Bernardo Alberto Houssay), Dr Cori studied how the body uses energy and she identified the enzyme that initiates the decomposition of glycogen into glucose.[17]

Dr Cori's original research—at times overlooked in favor of her husband's contributions—helped lead to viable treatment options for diabetes.[18]

Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 8

Dr Helen Brooke Taussig (1898-1986)

Helen Brooke Taussig, MD, was a pioneer in pediatric cardiology and helped establish the specialty when she published Congenital Malformations of the Heart in 1949. In 1965, she became the first female president of the American Heart Association.[19]

Together with Drs Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas, Dr Taussig created the Blalock-Taussig-Thomas shunt to prolong the lives of children born with tetralogy of Fallot (popularly known as "the blue baby operation").[3,19,20]

Dr Taussig studied at Harvard Medical School and Boston University before completing her medical degree at Johns Hopkins, an institution with which she was affiliated for most of her career.

Dr Taussig was the recipient of numerous international prizes and distinctions, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Albert Lasker Award, and France's Legion of Honor. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.[19]

Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 9

Dr Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959)

The influential psychiatrist Helen Flanders Dunbar, MD, PhD, considered the "mother of holistic medicine," pioneered theories of psychosomatic medicine and psychobiology and was a leader in the pastoral care movement.[21-23]

From a highly educated Chicago family, Dr Dunbar's university education spanned a breathtaking range of subjects (such as mathematics, psychology, medieval literature, medicine, obstetrics, theology, and psychiatry) and degrees, which included periods spent in Europe.

Throughout her career, Dr Dunbar held numerous positions at American educational and medical institutions.

Among her research accomplishments, while director of the psychosomatic research program at Columbia Medical College, she conducted research to establish a link between psychosomatic disorders and "personality constellations." In the field of psychosomatic medicine, her publications are still considered classics.[21]

Dr Dunbar also founded the American Psychosomatic Society and its journal Psychosomatic Medicine, which she edited for 10 years.

Image courtesy of Williams & Wilkins via National Institutes of Health

Slide 10

Dr Virginia Apgar (1909-1974)

In 1953, Virginia Apgar, MD, created the Apgar score, the first standardized tool to evaluate the newborn. An example of evidence-based medicine before the term existed, the Apgar score has been a gold standard to evaluate and guide the health of generations of newborn babies.[3,24,25]

In the 1930s and 1940s, Dr Apgar was also a pioneer in the nascent field of anesthesiology and was the first woman to become full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (1949).[24]

In her later career, after obtaining a master's degree in public health, Dr Apgar studied the association between the effects of labor, delivery, and maternal anesthetics on the baby's Apgar score and well-being, and focused on the prevention of birth defects.[26]

Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Slide 11

Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004)

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, was a pioneer in the study of death, dying, and grief and proposed that death be considered a normal passage of life.[3,27-29]

Dr Kübler-Ross described five phases which she believed a dying person experienced: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Her book, On Death and Dying, published in 1969, became a standard text for healthcare professionals with terminally ill patients.

Dr Kübler-Ross confronted taboos and transformed the discourse surrounding death. She helped to ease the difficulty with which patients, families, and healthcare professionals discuss terminal sickness, mortality, and death. She was also influential in improving end-of-life care.[28,29]

Image from Associated Press

Slide 12

Dr Audrey Evans (1925-)

Audrey Evans, MD, is a pioneer in the study and treatment of childhood cancers—notably neuroblastoma, for which she developed the Evans Staging System, and has contributed tirelessly to the care of children with cancer.[30-32]

Originally from Britain, Dr Evans came to the United States as a Fulbright Fellow at Boston Children's Hospital, where she conducted some of the first trials for chemotherapy agents such as dactinomycin and vincristine.[31]

During her distinguished career, Dr Evans was head of the hematology-oncology unit at University of Chicago Clinics, manager of the children's cancer center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, chair of the Division of Oncology at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvanian School of Medicine.

Dr Evans was instrumental in the creation of the first Ronald McDonald House (1974), a place to stay for families of children receiving treatment for cancer, and, in the 1980s, helped found the Ronald McDonald summer camp for sick children.

Dr Evans is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Janeway Medal of the American Radium Society, the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Distinguished Career Award, and the Spectrum Award of the American Red Cross.

Image from Associated Press

Slide 13

Dr Patricia Bath (1942-)

Patricia Bath, MD, has dedicated her career to helping the underserved, in part by creating the field of community ophthalmology. This new discipline, grounded in public health, community medicine, and clinical ophthalmology, has proven to be a model for health practitioners around the world.

Dr Bath can also include laser scientist and inventor in her list of accomplishments. In 1986 she created Laserphaco, a novel device and approach to cataract surgery. She has registered several patents for medical devices[33-35] and was also the first female chair of an ophthalmology residency program in the United States (Drew-UCLA, 1983).

After obtaining her MD at Howard University and her fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University, Dr Bath conducted an influential epidemiologic study showing that, due to a lack of access to medical care, black persons had double the rate of blindness compared with whites.[33]

In 1977, Dr Bath, with colleagues Dr Alfred Cannon and Dr Aaron Ifekwunigwe, founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness "to protect, preserve, and restore the gift of sight."[34]

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Slide 14

Dr Antonia Novello (1944-)

In 1990, Antonia Novello, MD, became the first woman and the first person of Hispanic origin to become the Surgeon General of the United States.[36,37]

A native of Puerto Rico, where she obtained her medical degree, Dr Novello specialized in a wide range of disciplines, including nephrology, pediatrics, and public health.[36,37]

After private practice, Dr Novello joined the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism and Digestive Disorders at the National Institutes of Health. She later became deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and played an important role in the Organ Transplantation Procurement Act of 1984.[36,37]

As Surgeon General, Dr Novello focused on the health of women, minorities, and children. She also promoted AIDS awareness, injury prevention, and childhood immunization, and took on tobacco industry advertising targeted at children. Dr Novello was influential in the Healthy Children Ready to Learn initiative.[36,37]

Following her role as Surgeon General, Dr Novello became a special representative to the United Nations Children's Fund, a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins School of Health and Hygiene, and New York State's Commissioner of Health.[36]

Image from Associated Press

Slide 15

Dr Nancy Dickey (1950-)

In 1998, Nancy Dickey, MD, became the first female president of the American Medical Association (AMA).[38-40]

Originally from South Dakota, Dr Dickey grew up in California, where, as a child, she was discouraged from a career in medicine, which she was told was incompatible with family life.[35,37]

Dr Dickey completed her medical degree and residency in family medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston at a time when roughly 10% of the class was female.[38] Throughout her prolific career, she has juggled many balls—medicine, family, teaching, leadership, community action—and has helped shape the evolving field of medical care in the United States.

Before becoming its president, Dr Dickey was an active participant in the AMA, serving as chair of the Board of Trustees and leading the AMA's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. As president, Dr Dickey proposed the patient's bill of rights.[38]

Dr Dickey is an active member of the American and Texas Academy of Family Physicians and the recipient of various prestigious awards, including six honorary doctorate degrees. She was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 2007.[39]

Image courtesy of Nancy Dickey, MD

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