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Women in Medicine: How Female Doctors Have Changed the Face of Medicine

woman-physician

Despite the variety of challenges that women in medicine have faced, today’s female physicians continue to inspire and save lives every day

 

According to the AMA website, in 1970 fewer than eight percent of physicians in the United States were women. According to the 2011 Physician Characteristics and Distribution study, by 2009 that percentage had increased to thirty, and the number of female doctors had grown by more than six fold. Women have made and continue to make vast progress in the field of medicine, and there have been many exceptional female doctors whose accomplishments deserve to be celebrated.

In “Woman as Physician,” H.B. Elliot describes the story of Elizabeth Blackwell: as the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree, she was one of those doctors. When Dr. Blackwell graduated from Geneva Medical College in 1849, it would still be seventy years before women would be allowed to vote and 120 before women’s admission to Yale College.  At the time, the Blackwells and other Quakers were some of the few people who believed in the equality of men and women. Indeed, when Geneva Medical College considered Dr. Blackwell’s application, the faculty asked the students to vote on her admission, with the condition that if one student objected they would not admit her. The students thought the entire issue was a joke and sent a facetious letter urging her acceptance. Even after earning her degree, Dr. Blackwell was banned from practice in most hospitals. Undeterred, in 1857 she and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska founded their own infirmary in New York. Later, during the Civil War, Dr. Blackwell trained many women to be nurses, and she eventually added a Women’s Medical College to her infirmary in order to train other female physicians.

May Edwards Chinn

May-Edward-ChinnMay Edward Chinn did not plan on becoming a doctor. Originally she wanted to be a musician, but she changed from music to science after receiving encouragement from a professor at Columbia Teachers College. This fortuitous decision led to a distinguished career in medicine.

When May Chinn died in 1980, she was the recipient of honorary degrees from New York University and Columbia University. Her work in cancer research helped in the development of the Pap smear, a test for early detection of cervical cancer. She was the first African-American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College, one of the first female African-American physicians in New York City, and the first African-American woman to intern at Harlem Hospital.

Chinn's father escaped slavery from a Virginia plantation at the age of 11. Her mother was an indigenous American from the Chickahominy tribe who placed great value on education. She worked as a live-in housekeeper for the Tiffanys, the well-known family of artisans and jewelers, in their mansion on Long Island. She saved money from her meager wages to send May to a boarding school in New Jersey, an experience which ended when May contracted osteomyelitis of the jaw and returned to New York for surgery.

Helen B Taussig - a Founder of Pediatric Cardiology

Dr-H.-Taussig

Helen Brooke Taussig is known as the founder of pediatric cardiology for her innovative work on "blue baby" syndrome

 

In 1944, Taussig, surgeon Alfred Blalock, and surgical technician Vivien Thomas developed an operation to correct the congenital heart defect that causes the syndrome. Since then, their operation has prolonged thousands of lives, and is considered a key step in the development of adult open heart surgery the following decade. Dr. Taussig also helped to avert a thalidomide birth defect crisis in the United States, testifying to the Food and Drug Administration on the terrible effects the drug had caused in Europe.

Helen Taussig was born 1898 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Frank W. Taussig, a well-known economist and professor at Harvard University, and Edith Guild, one of the first students at Radcliffe College. Her mother died when she was only 11, and her grandfather, a physician who had a strong interest in biology and zoology, may have influenced her decision to become a doctor.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin

Dorothy-Crowfoot-Hodgkin

A Founder of Protein Crystallography

 

Scientific biographers do not, in general, find much correlation between good character and great science. There are a few exceptions. Historians have unanimously agreed, for example, that Charles Darwin was a particularly admirable, even lovable, figure: a collegial scientist, devoted father, faithful supporter of young colleagues, sincere, honest, and without personal enemies.

The Darwin of our age is certainly Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. In the words of colleague Max Perutz (Nobelist for his solution of the hemoglobin molecule), she was "a great chemist, a saintly, gentle and tolerant lover of people, and a devoted protagonist of peace." In a short space it is impossible to discuss both the significance of her science and the scope of her tireless activity for world peace.

Helen Flanders Dunbar - Pioneer in Psychosomatic Medicine

Helen Flanders Dunbar - "the mother of holistic medicine" (Stevens & Gardner, 1982, p. 93)


Helen-Flanders-DunbarprimaryDunbar, Helen Flanders (14 May 1902-21 Aug. 1959), psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and pioneer in psychosomatic medicine, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Francis William Dunbar, a mathematician and patent attorney, and Edith Vaughan Flanders, a genealogist. She attended a series of private, largely experimental schools, graduating from Bryn Mawr College in 1923.

Dunbar received four graduate degrees in the next seven years. At one point, she was studying in three programs at three different institutions simultaneously. Columbia University awarded her a master of arts degree in philosophy in 1924 and a doctor of philosophy degree in 1929. Her doctoral dissertation on Dante, "Symbolism in Medieval Thought and Its Consummation in the Divine Comedy," was published in the same year.

Meanwhile, she had enrolled at Union Theological Seminary, receiving her bachelor of divinity degree in 1927, and at Yale University School of Medicine in 1926. She finished her studies for the doctor of medicine degree in 1930.

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