11 brilliant women who broke through glass ceilings in medicine, but chances are you've never heard of them.
In my research for this blog I've come across some truly inspirational women whose hard work and dedication broke down barriers and created new opportunities for other women. And yet none of these women were featured in any of my history books growing up.
Women have worked as caregivers throughout history, nursing the sick and injured, and preparing medicinal herbs and tinctures. But with the advent of medicine as a science, women were too often barred from serving in professional roles such as doctor or pharmacist. These positions required extensive education and training, and the doors to those institutions were closed to many of the brightest and most determined women.
But there were a few truly remarkable women who persevered and managed to break into the all-male medical schools. And, once they'd earned their degree, they turned around and created new colleges and hospitals specifically for the purpose of educating other women.
These are the the women who fascinate me. They pushed forward, and then reached back to bring more women with them!
I've gathered together some of the women who've inspired me in my readings through the years, spanning three centuries of American history. Each of the women below worked as a professional in medicine in one capacity or other. Some went on to start their own training courses or colleges to open doors for more women to follow their dreams of working as a nurse or doctor. Others used their training to serve their community, often in times of severe and shameful discrimination. All of these women were the first in their field, breaking down barriers for others who came after them.
Elizabeth Gooking Greenleaf
(November 11, 1681 – November 11, 1762)
In 1727 Elizabeth Gooking Greenleaf became the first woman to run an apothecary in the Thirteen Colonies, when she opened her shop in Boston. Previously, she'd worked with her husband the Reverend Daniel Greenleaf, a minister, physician, and apothecary, in Yarmouth, Massachusetts.
An apothecary served a role similar to a pharmacist in that they mixed up remedies and medicines, gave general medical advice and sometimes even treated patients.
I tried to find an image of Elizabeth, but alas there are none available online. Unlike her husband, her children and even some of her grandchildren, it doesn't appear that she ever had her portrait painted. So, instead I borrowed this image from Colonial Williamsburg, which is a pretty good representation of what an apothecary of that era would look like.
(February 3, 1821 – May 31, 1910)
In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Although she was born in Britain, her family moved to the US while she was still a child.
She knew she wanted to become a doctor, but no medical schools accepted women. But then, she applied to the Geneva Medical College in New York who, instead of banning her out-right, put the matter to a vote among the students, assuming there was no way they'd agree to allow a woman to join them. And they wouldn't have, except enough fellows voted "yes" as a joke that she actually got in!
Her sister Emily was the third woman in the US to get a medical degree in 1854 (Lydia Folger Fowler was second), and in 1857 the two sisters along with Marie Zakrzewska (another female doctor!) opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children (now the Lower Manhattan Hospital). While they were able to accept interns at their Infirmary, they wanted a place to teach medicine, so in 1868 the Blackwell sisters established the Women's Medical College in New York City where women from all around the world could study.
I've written about her a couple of times over the years. She's truly a fascinating woman from history!
"It is not easy to be a pioneer - but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world."
Rebecca Lee Crumpler
(February 8, 1831 – March 9, 1895)
In 1864 Rebecca graduated from the New England Female Medical College, making her the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree.
She practiced medicine in Boston for a while before moving to Richmond, Virginia, where she worked for the Freedman's Bureau offering medical services to newly freed slaves. Her hope for moving to Virginia was that it would "present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children." And it did.
But she encountered a double blast of discrimination -- one for her gender, and one for her race -- and eventually she tired of Virginia and returned to Boston, where she worked with the mostly black community of Beacon Hill. treating women and children in her home, regardless of whether they were able to pay.
In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses, one of the first medical publications by an African American. Based on her notes from the years working in medicine, it was an excellent guide for women on providing medical care for themselves and their children.
"It may be well to state here that, having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others."
(July 27, 1841 – April 16, 1930)
In 1872 Linda Richards became the first student to enroll a brand new course of study: nurse training. Based on the programs created by Florence Nightengale, Dr. Susan Dimock (another female doctor!) created a program of professional training for nurses, at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston.
After she graduated, Linda took a position as night supervisor at Bellevue Hospital Center, where she continued to seek more information and experience. While there she also created the first system for keeping medical records for individual patients, which was quickly adopted through the US and the United Kingdom.
She was committed to continuously increasing her own knowledge of nursing practices, and then transmitting that knowledge to others. She traveled to England where she spent seven months working in an intensive program created by Florence Nightengale herself. When she returned to the US, she traveled the country creating nursing training programs. In 1885 she traveled to Japan to help establish the first professional nursing training program at Doshisha Hospital in Kyoto.
"My desire to become a nurse grew out of what I heard of the need of nurses in the Civil War. Long before the organization of training schools in American I had a fixed purpose to devote my life to the work of caring for the sick and suffering."
(December 25, 1820 – August 7, 1909)
In 1883 Susan Hayhurst became the first woman to receive a pharmacy degree in the United States.
When she was a child, she did quite well in math, and as a young adult she worked as a teacher in Pennsylvania. She was interested in chemistry and physiology, and so she decided to attend the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, where she earned a medical degree in 1857. After graduation, she continued working as an educator, serving as principal of the Friends' School in Philadelphia for several years before opening her own school.
In 1876 she returned to medicine, taking a position as head of the pharmaceutical department at the Woman's Hospital of Philadelphia. Aware that the field of clinical pharmacology was growing rapidly, she attended lectures at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy where only one other woman had been admitted (Clara Marshall) before her. Finally, in 1883, she completed her courses and became the first woman to earn a diploma in pharmacy. As extra inspiration for older women, she was 63!
Suzanne LaFlesche Picotte
(June 17, 1865 – September 18, 1915)
In 1889 Suzanne LaFlesche Picotte graduated from medical school as valedictorian of her class, making her the first Native American to earn a medical degree.
She was born on the Omaha reservation in eastern Nebraska to parents who we each half Omahan and half white, and who wanted their people to assimilate into modern society. She attended the reservation school, and then moved to the Elizabeth Institute, an excellent finishing school for young Native women preparing them for lives as either single women teachers, or as wives and mothers. Instead, Suzanne decided to attend medical school.
With the financial help of the Connecticut Indian Association (a group of Christian, mostly white women dedicated to preserving Native American rights), she attended the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, where she spent three years in a program of exacting study and clinical work, graduating at the top of her class.
She returned to the Omaha reservation serving as the government physician, responsible for teaching the students about hygiene and tending to their health. She was also made a medical missionary by the Connecticut Indian Association, which then sent her funding for medical instruments and books enabling her to operate as a physician to the larger community.
As a trusted member of the reservation, she quickly became a leader. Naturally she used her medical training and position to educate the community on a variety of public health issues like tuberculosis and temperance. She also stepped in to help them write letters, and eventually worked as an advocate for legal proceedings regarding land rights and fraud perpetrated by local whites trying to take advantage of Native Americans.
"It has always been a desire of mine to study medicine ever since I was a small girl for even then I saw the needs of my people for a good physician."
(June 29, 1897 – December 15, 1992)
In 1933 Kazue Togasaki graduated from medical school, becoming one of the first two women of Japanese ancestry to earn a medical degree in the United States. Megumi Shinoda graduated from Columbia College the same year.
Kazue was the second child and first daughter of her parents who were both active in the community in San Francisco. She was nine when the 1906 Earthquake struck, destroying whole swaths of the city. She helped her mother attend to the injured in a makeshift hospital she set up, and was often sent along with Japanese women when they went to doctors to act as a translator. Perhaps it was this early training that encouraged her to pursue a career in medicine.
She earned a BS in Zoology from Stanford before earning her RN and working as a nurse. But that wasn't enough for her. She wanted to be a doctor, and enrolled at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania after applying to numerous other schools who only offered limited spots to women and Japanese American students. She graduated in 1933, and served her residency in San Francisco before opening a private OB/GYN practice.
She wasn't the only woman in her family to study medicine. All five of her younger sister followed her example. Mitsuye Togasaki Shida, Chiye Togasaki Yamanaka, and Yaye Togasaki Breitenbach worked as a nurses, Teru Togasaki worked as a doctor, and Yoshiye Togasaki studied medicine and public health and worked as a physician in a public health laboratory.
During World War II, like most other Japanese American citizens, Togasaki family members were sent to internment camps. Kazue's medical training was put to use at the first camp she arrived at, Tanforan, where she helped set up the hospital and instruct other doctors in childbirth procedures. In her one month there, she delivered 50 babies in the camp. She then moved through a series of different camps. At the same time, her sisters were doing similar work in the camps where they were sent. Eventually, the sisters applied to be interned together, but they were told their skills were too important to have them all in one location.
After the war, she returned to her practice in San Francisco, where on the course of her long career she delivered more than 10,000 babies.
Other important American women in medicine:
Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. In addition to her work as a doctor, she also lectured on other important issues of the day including women's rights and the abolition of slavery.
"I have been so happy in my work; every moment occupied; how I long to whisper it in the ear of every listless woman, 'do something, if you would be happy'"Rebecca Cole (March 16, 1846 – August 14, 1922) was the second African-American female physician in the United States, graduating from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1867. She interned at the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children where she was one of the first medical professionals to go into the tenements to teach prenatal care and hygiene to women. She worked as a doctor for more than 50 years, much of that serving destitute women and children.
Eliza Ann Grier (1864–1902) was the first African-American female physician in Georgia, graduating from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1897. While she was an undergrad at Fisk University and during her time at WMCP, she had to alternate years of study and working to afford tuition. After graduation, she moved to Atlanta, where she set up a private OB/GYN practice in Atlanta. Tragically, she fell ill and died five years later.
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