By Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom, contributor Sep 07, 2021
September is Women in Medicine Month, established by the
American Medical Association to recognize the growing number of women in the
profession and to celebrate the importance of their contributions.
During this special month, Staff Care is proud to recognize and celebrate some of
the outstanding women who have impacted the medical field over the years. From Elizabeth
Blackwell to Anna Freud and many others, these pioneering women broke new
ground, and can serve as an inspiration for other women in medicine.
Today and every day, we are privileged to put a spotlight on female
physicians and clinical researchers who have made a difference in medical
practice and patient care.
firsts for female physicians
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, became the first woman in the United States to be granted an MD degree, according
to the Association of American
Medical Colleges (AAMC),
Although she was initially turned away by 10 medical schools, Blackwell didn’t
take no for an answer; she eventually graduated from Geneva Medical College in
western New York. Our nation’s first female physician is also known for
co-founding the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children to serve the
poor in 1857 and then the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in
Less than 20 years after Blackwell made history, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD, became the
first African American woman in the United States to earn her medical degree,
In more recent history, Antonia
Novello, MD, became the first female—and the first Hispanic—to be appointed
surgeon general of the United States in 1990. Joselyn Elders, MD, another noted female physician, became the
first African American surgeon general of the United States in 1993, and the
second woman to ever hold that position.
Another name on our list of influential women in medical history is Virginia Apgar, MD, whose eponymous
score is used as the universal benchmark of rating newborn infants' health in
the United States. In fact, former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond once said that Apgar had
“done more to improve the health of mothers, babies, and unborn infants than
anyone else in the 20th century.”
Unsung heroines of the medical field
Although her father’s name is among the most noteworthy in
medicine as the founder of psychoanalysis, Anna
Freud was also a leader in the field.
A former elementary school teacher, Anna Freud made great strides in the area
of child and adolescent psychoanalysis and revolutionized the way that children
are treated in many healthcare fields and beyond. Her best known work is the
book, The Ego and the Mechanism of
Defense (1936), and she is credited for her extensive work delving into the
ego. Many sources acknowledge Freud for establishing the field of child psychoanalysis.
In Freud’s biography for
SimplyPsychology.org, Iqra Noor explained, “She developed different techniques to treat children, and
noticed that children's symptoms were different from those of adults and were
often related to developmental stages."
Fast-forward to the 1970s, and here we find another woman making a name for
herself in medicine. Rosalyn Yalow, PhD, was a medical physicist who co-developed the
radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique for measuring hormones and other biological
substances, and in 1977 became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in
Physiology or Medicine. She was also the first woman to be named president of
The Endocrine Society.
Yalow’s work ushered in a new era in the field of
endocrinology, making possible major advances in diagnosing and treating
hormonal problems related to diabetes, growth, thyroid function and fertility.
Eleven years after Yalow’s award, Gertrude Elion secured the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
for her work developing drugs to treat leukemia and AIDs, alongside George
The growing number of women in medicine
In a field previously dominated by men, women physicians have
made incredible strides. Recent data from the American Association of
Medical Colleges shows that more than 36 percent of
the country’s physician workforce in 2020 was made up of women, representing a
substantial increase from 27 percent of the workforce in 2007. Then, in 2019, women
made up the majority of U.S. medical students (50.5 percent) for the first time
in the nation’s history.
Learn more about Women in Medicine Month from the AMA.
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