From the American Revolution to NASA: Pioneering Women in Medicine

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Women in medicine are developing pioneering technologies, including custom-engineered bones for skeletal reconstruction.
Women in medicine are developing pioneering technologies, including custom-engineered bones for skeletal reconstruction.

Do you know a woman in medicine who you would like to honor? Throughout March, Medical Bag will be collecting your stories about the women behind the white coat — women who are advancing clinical research and the field of medicine one day at a time. At the end of Women's History Month, our staff will share your stories. 

Click here to share your story.

Most people have heard of Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Lamp, who founded the first secular nursing school in the world,1 or Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree from a medical school in the United States,2 or Clara Barton, the legendary Civil War nurse-turned-founder of the Red Cross.3

These recognizable names barely scratch the surface of women's contributions to medicine. How many people know that Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African American female doctor in the United States in 1864 — a year before the end of the Civil War — and the author of the first medical text by a African American author?4-6

Some women have completely revolutionized an area of medicine, like cardiologist Helen Brooke Taussig, who helped develop the Blalock-Taussig-Thomas shunt.7,8 Her work finally allowed babies born with tetralogy of Fallot to survive childhood and paved the way toward adult open heart surgery. Virginia Apgar, MD, an anesthesiologist who became the first female full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, became a trailblazer in evidence-based medicine when she developed the Apgar score to assess newborns' health.9

It was the doggedness of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, that both normalized and overhauled the way we talk — and think — about death, when she described the 5 stages of grief in her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying.10 The works of Grace Eldering and Pearl Kendrick are directly responsible for saving thousands of infant lives, following the invention of the pertussis vaccine — developed on a shoestring budget.11

There are the Nobel Prize winners,12 starting with Gerty Cori for her shared discovery of how the body uses energy and converts glycogen into glucose,13 and Gertrude Belle Elion, whose list of accomplishments includes developing 45 treatments to fight cancer (including the first against leukemia), the first antiviral drug (acyclovir to fight herpes), and the first immunosuppressive drug (azathioprine),14,15 which finally enabled safe organ transplantation. Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider won for discovering the enzyme telomerase and the function of telomeres,16,17 and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi who shared the prize for discovering HIV.18

There are also the surgeon generals, including Antonia C. Novello,19 the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as United States Surgeon General: she was the 14th Surgeon General under President George H.W. Bush. M. Joycelyn Elders, MD, pediatrician and chief resident at the University of Arkansas, was later appointed the 15th Surgeon General and was the first African American to serve in that position.20 Later, Regina M. Benjamin became both the youngest woman and the first African American woman elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees21 — before later serving under President Barack Obama as the 18th Surgeon General.22

Today, women continue to propel medicine into the future. Take a glimpse at just a handful of the remarkable women in medicine making history today.

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