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An Introduction to Women and Medicine

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Women were never officially allowed to be physicians and pharmacists until the late 19th century. However, the tradition of women in the healing arts is as ancient as midwifery, shamanism and care-giving.  It has always fallen to females to be the primary nurturing helpmates of healing. They uplift not only half of the sky, but often the babies, the sick, the frail and the old.

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman ever admitted to medical school, in the 1840s. It was something of a “prank” to consider a woman as intellectually competent as men. They admitted her expecting failure. But Blackwell proved an accomplished and gifted doctor. She received her degree from the Geneva Medical College in New York in 1849. In 1850, despite protestation, an all-female medical school, the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, was established. It later became a coeducational institution.

Also very crucial to the healing arts was the work of anatomist Florence Rena Sabin. She was the first female faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. She also was the first female member at the Rockefeller Institute and a crucial tuberculosis researcher there. At age 76, in the 1940s, Sabin was appointed the head of Denver, Colorado’s new city health department.

Ida Henrietta Hyde was a physiologist who earned her PhD in 1896 against all odds, at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Her work allowed her to discover the micro-electrode, an essential tool for research in neurobiology.

At the turn of the 20th century, as more women were at last welcomed to medicine, Dr. Alice Hamilton founded industrial medicine. She worked with Jane Addams at the famous Hull House, studying not just women’s issues, but also mines and factories which dealt with toxic contaminants in many professions.

Marie Curie and her husband Pierre worked on fundamental radium research that would eventually allow X-rays to be a common tool in western medicine. Curie was the first woman to win not one, but two, Nobel prizes for her sacrifice and work in radiation and chemistry.

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards was the first woman environmental engineer. She is credited, or at least should be, with founding the science she named Oekology (later shortened to ecology) in 1892.  The health issues of the entire globe are now critically important in this science. Chemist Mary Engle Pennington helped unveil many of the injurious affects of several microorganisms. She founded the Philadelphia Clinical Laboratory in 1900.

Biochemist Gerty Cori’s research led to the discovery of the carbohydrate cycle that reveals the key role of glucose.  She and her husband, Carl Cori, won the Nobel prize for Medicine in 1947. 

Medical physicist Rosalyn Yalow played a critical role in developing work on how radioisotopes could be utilized in medicine. Rosalind Elsie Franklin was a molecular biologist who contributed major data in the discovery of DNA. She is noted as the first person to make the discovery that DNA exists in a twisted, or helical, shape, which was later proven to be a double helix.

There are many other notable women who, as doctors, contributed tremendously to the field of medicine.  Also important to note is that many scientists from other fields, such as Margaret Mead, Jane Goodall, Mary Leakey, Diane Fossey and others, continue to inspire girls to enter the competitive, and often hostile, fields of science, research, medicine, engineering and technology.  Among them are neuroscientist Rita Levi-Montalcini, geneticist Barbara McClintock, biochemist Gertrude Belle Elion and cardiologist Helen Brooke Tasussig.

All of these women were pioneers who changed the world for the better. It should not be forgotten, either, that the nursing profession is just as important. When one considers how very many women have contributed to nursing, the list of remarkable progress would be substantially longer than this one. As nurses, none is as famous as Florence Nightingale. Yet it is the legions of unsung angels in white who should be revered as healers even today.

In the healing arts, women have always been significant players. In the 21st century, it is easy to forget that even now men dominate in these fields.  Women should be inspired, proud and determined to continue to keep struggling to make a difference in the sciences that sustain life.

More about this author: Christyl Rivers

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