Nine women medical pioneers
WHEN we consider the problems still faced by women around the world, it can be easy to forget how far we have come. It is only a few hundred years since women were burned as witches because the Church feared that the power of prayer might be reduced by successful female “healers.” The experience and skill of women whose herbal remedies were passed down from generation to generation also represented a challenge to the formal medical licences that were issued by the Church to university-trained doctors. During the witch-hunting centuries, midwifery was the only clinical profession in which women were allowed to practice, apparently because its lower status did not attract male doctors.
But through the dedication and determination of women like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Elizabeth Backwell, women began to make their way in medicine and nowadays roughly half of all medical school graduates are female. It is probably no surprise to find that many women medical pioneers were also powerful campaigners for social reform, particularly for women and children, from voting rights to education.
The first British-born woman physician was known as a man – her gender was only discovered when her dead body was being laid out. Dr. James Barry (1795-1865) was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland. and worked as a military surgeon in the British Army across the British Empire. (S)he gained a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh Medical School, served in Cape Town, South Africa, and later in many parts of the Empire, rising to the rank of Inspector General (equivalent to Brigadier General) in charge of military hospitals, the second highest medical office in the Army. (S)he improved conditions for wounded soldiers and for the native inhabitants. Barry chose to live as a man in public and private life, in part to be accepted at university and to work as a surgeon.
Although there were women healers from earliest times, the first acknowledged woman in medicine was Metrodora, a Greek physician working in the second or third century. She was the author of the oldest medical book known to be written by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women, which was often referred to by Greek and Roman medical writers and later in medieval Europe. Metrodora was influenced by the works of the great Greek physician, Hippocrates, (460-370BC).
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, (1836-1917), born in Whitechapel, London, was a doctor and feminist, the first English woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain, the co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women, the first dean of a British medical school, the first female doctor of medicine in France, the first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board and, as Mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor and magistrate in Britain. (As an aside, her father, Newson Garrett, built Snape Maltings near Aldeburgh, closely associated with Benjamin Britten, and home to the world-famous concert hall.)
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, as well as the first woman on the UK Medical Register. Born in Bristol but a US citizen, she was the first woman to graduate from medical school, a pioneer in promoting the education of women in medicine in the US, and a social and moral reformer in both the US and in Britain.
Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), born in Richmond, Virginia, was the first African American woman to become a physician in the US. She took her medical degree at what is now the University of Boston in 1864 and practised in Boston before moving to Richmond, after the Civil War. She treated freed slaves who did not have access to medical care. She married Dr Arthur Crumpler and was one of the first African-Americans to publish a medical book, Book of Medical Discourses in 1883..
Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999) was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988, for developing 45 treatments that helped the immune system to fight cancer. She is particularly recognised for her discovery of Purinethol, the first significant drug in treating leukaemia. Her other major contribution was the first antiretroviral drug to treat AIDS, aziothymidine, known as AZT. She was inspired to pursue medicine when her grandfather passed away from cancer when she was 15 and became dedicated to discovering a cure for the disease.
Kadambini Ganguly, (1861-1923), and Chandramukhi Basu were the first two female graduates from India and the entire British Empire. Kadambini , who was born in Bhagalpur and trained at the University of Calcutta, was the first South Asian female physician, trained in western medicine, to graduate in South Asia.
Jane Elizabeth Hodgson, (1915-2006), born in Crookston, Minnesota, was an obstetrician and gynaecologist, and is the only person ever convicted in the US of performing an abortion in a hospital. Hodgson took her first degree at Carleton College and gained her MD at the University of Minnesota. She trained at the Jersey City Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic. Her 50 year career focused on providing reproductive health care to women, including abortions. She opened her own clinic in St Paul, Minnesota, and co-founded the Duluth Women’s Health Center. In addition to providing medical care to women, she was an advocate for women’s rights, challenging state laws that restricted access to abortion.more
Dr Maria Montessori (1870-1952), born in the Marche province of Italy, was a physician and anthropologist who devoted her life to understanding how children develop socially, intellectually, physically, and spiritually. She was one of the first women to be granted a diploma as a physician in Italy. She worked at a clinic for children with mental illnesses and later directed the Orthophrenic School in Rome for children with physical, mental and emotional challenges. She campaigned on the need to change our attitudes about children and their treatment. Her philosophy is continued in the international network of Montessori Schools.
Suzanne LaFlesche Picotte, (1865-1915), born in Nebraska, was an Omaha Indian doctor and reformer and is widely acknowledged as the first female Native American physician. She campaigned for public health and for the formal, legal allotment of land to members of the Omaha tribe. As part of the 19th century temperance movement, she worked to discourage drinking on the reservation and campaigned against tuberculosis, as part of a public health campaign. She also worked to help other Omaha navigate the bureaucracy of the Office of Indian Affairs.
Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, (1886-1968), was a leading figure not only in medicine but in social reform in India. She was a medical practitioner, the first women legislator in India and a lifelong campaigner for better conditions for women. She was active in the movement to liberate India from British rail. Born in one of the princely states, she was educated at Madras Medical College. Among her many medical achievements, Reddy founded the Adyar Cancer Institute.
Pictured: Dr. James Barry (1795-1865) [ Margaret Ann Bulkley] with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Elizabeth Backwell, Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, Maria Montessori, Suzanne LaFlesche Picotte and Muthulakshmi Reddy.