February 7, 2023
The Most Influential Women in Medical History: A Guide to Their Pioneering Contributions
Explore the impact of the most famous women in medical history on the field of medicine.
From Elizabeth Blackwell to Rosalind Franklin, learn about their inspiring stories and contributions.
Recognize the legacy of these pioneering women and the influence they had on the medical profession.
Women have made countless contributions to the field of medicine throughout history, but their stories are often overshadowed by their male counterparts. From the earliest days of medicine to the present day, women have played a vital role in advancing our understanding of the human body and disease, developing new treatments and technologies, and improving the lives of millions of people. In this article, we'll highlight some of the most famous women in medical history and explore their impact on the field of medicine.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)
Throughout her life, Mary Eliza Mahoney was a steadfast advocate for equality and fairness. She faced discrimination and prejudice as a woman of color in the 19th century, but she did not let these obstacles stop her from pursuing her passion and making a lasting impact on the nursing profession.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.
Mary Eliza Mahoney was a trailblazer in the nursing profession, determined to advance equality for African Americans and women. Born in Boston to freed slaves, she was educated at an integrated school and began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in her teens. She completed the hospital's 16-month nursing program in 1879, becoming the first African American licensed nurse. Instead of pursuing public nursing, she chose to work as a private nurse, becoming known for her efficiency and bedside manner.
Mahoney was an active participant in the nursing community, co-founding the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and serving as its chaplain. After retiring from nursing, she continued to champion women's rights, registering to vote after the 19th Amendment was ratified. Mary Eliza Mahoney was recognized with numerous awards and inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame and the National Women's Hall of Fame. A monument at her gravesite in Massachusetts serves as a testament to her legacy.
Mahoney's legacy continues to inspire and motivate nurses today. She once said, "I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do." This quote reflects her unwavering commitment to making a difference, no matter how big or small. Through her work as a nurse and her involvement in the nursing community, she demonstrated her commitment to excellence and her belief in the importance of providing care to those in need.
As we celebrate her life and achievements, it is important to remember the significance of Mary Eliza Mahoney and the impact she had on the nursing profession. Her legacy serves as a reminder that one person can make a difference and that it is possible to overcome obstacles and achieve great things through perseverance and determination.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)
Elizabeth Blackwell was a trailblazer in the medical profession as the first woman to receive a medical degree in America. Born on February 3, 1821, in Bristol, England, she was part of a family of prominent activists, including her brother Henry who was an abolitionist and women's suffrage supporter, and her sister-in-law Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first ordained female minister in a mainstream Protestant denomination.
The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.
After moving to America, she was inspired to pursue medicine after a dying friend wished for a female physician. Despite facing discrimination and obstacles in medical school, she graduated first in her class in 1849 and continued her training in London and Paris. In 1851, she returned to New York City and opened a clinic to treat poor women and later the New York Infirmary for Women and Children with her sister and colleague. In 1868, she opened her own medical college in New York City and later became a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women. Her mission was to open up the medical profession to women and she is quoted as saying, "The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source."
Gerty Cori (1896-1957)
Gerty Theresa Cori was a pioneering scientist and medical researcher who, despite facing numerous obstacles including anti-Semitism and rampant gender discrimination, made major contributions to the field of intermediary metabolism of carbohydrates. Born in Prague, Austria on August 15, 1896, Cori received her medical degree from the German University of Prague in 1920. She emigrated to the United States with her husband, Carl Ferdinand Cori, and went on to become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1928.
I marvel at how even the wrong choices can keep us on the right path. How the worst mistake can wind up being the best thing that ever happened to us.
Alongside her husband, Cori formed a close scientific partnership and made groundbreaking discoveries in the field of carbohydrates, including the Cori cycle and the Cori ester. For their work, the Coris were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947. Cori went on to hold several important positions, including Professor of Biological Chemistry, and was the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including election to the National Academy of Sciences.
Despite facing major challenges, Gerty Theresa Cori never lost her passion for research. As a hard-driving and tireless worker, she was widely regarded as an inspirational role model who paved the way for many future women in science. Her insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm were contagious, and she was widely recognized for her skills as an experimentalist and perfectionist. One quote attributed to Gerty Theresa Cori is: "I marvel at how even the wrong choices can keep us on the right path. How the worst mistake can wind up being the best thing that ever happened to us." This quote showcases her positive outlook on life, despite the obstacles she faced. Cori was a true trailblazer, and her legacy continues to inspire future generations of scientists and researchers.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)
Florence Nightingale, affectionately known as "the Lady with the Lamp," was a pioneering nurse, leader and statistician who devoted her life to improving the healthcare system. Born on May 12, 1820 in Florence, Italy, Nightingale was a woman ahead of her time, who defied societal expectations and chose a career in nursing despite opposition from her family. Her dedication to the field took her to the battlefields of the Crimean War, where she led a team of 38 nurses to care for wounded soldiers. Through her tireless efforts, she transformed the hospital and reduced the death rate from 40% to 2%.
I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse.
Nightingale was also a visionary when it came to data and statistics, using her skills to present her experiences to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which led to the formation of a Royal Commission to improve the health of the British Army. She continued to promote clean and safe nursing practices, publishing a book, "Notes on Nursing: What it is, and What it is Not," and founding the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas’ Hospital.
Her legacy lives on to this day, with the International Committee of the Red Cross creating the Florence Nightingale Medal, and International Nurses Day being celebrated on her birthday every year. In 2010, the Florence Nightingale Museum at St. Thomas’ Hospital was reopened in her honor, a testament to her lasting impact on the field of nursing. As she once famously said, "I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse."
Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999)
Gertrude B. Elion, a trailblazing American pharmacologist, made history as one of the three recipients of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1988. Born in New York on January 23, 1918, she was the daughter of immigrants and graduated from Hunter College with a degree in biochemistry in 1937. Despite her achievements, she faced obstacles in her professional journey due to being a woman and was unable to obtain a graduate research position or pursue a Ph.D. However, her determination and passion for science led her to work as a lab assistant, teacher, and research chemist before joining Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories in 1944.
I never dreamed that I would be a research scientist. I was always interested in science, but I thought that women didn't do that kind of thing.
Elion's innovative work alongside George H. Hitchings resulted in the development of life-saving drugs for several major diseases, including leukemia, autoimmune disorders, and viral herpes. They revolutionized the field of pharmacology by focusing on the differences between normal human cells and those of pathogens, which enabled them to formulate drugs that targeted disease-causing agents while leaving normal cells unscathed. This marked a radical departure from the trial-and-error methods used by previous pharmacologists.
In her own words, Elion stated, "I never dreamed that I would be a research scientist. I was always interested in science, but I thought that women didn't do that kind of thing." Nevertheless, her contributions to the field of pharmacology have made a lasting impact and will continue to inspire future generations of scientists.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
Rosalind Elsie Franklin, born on July 25, 1920, in London, was a remarkable chemist who left a lasting impact in the scientific world. She was the second of five children in a powerful Anglo-Jewish family. Her father was a partner at Keyser's Bank, and her mother did a lot of volunteer work in the community. At the age of 16, Franklin knew exactly where she was headed and chose science as her subject, as her mother later stated. She attended St. Paul's School for Girls. She went on to study physical chemistry at Cambridge University, where she was awarded a scholarship and research grant for a year of research in photochemistry.
Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.
During World War II, Franklin made the important decision to get a PhD and do research in a field that was important to the war effort. He then worked for four years at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA). Here, she made groundbreaking discoveries about the micro-structures of coals and carbons and was the first to classify them with high accuracy. In 1945, she received her Ph.D. from Cambridge and continued her work in Paris, where she learned x-ray crystallography and analyzed the structures of graphitizing and non-graphitizing carbons.
Franklin went back to England in 1950, where he was given a Turner and Newall Fellowship to work at King's College London for three years in John T. Randall's Biophysics Unit. Here, she was asked to investigate DNA using x-ray diffraction, which provided crucial clues to its structure. Franklin was known for her meticulous work, and as she once stated, "Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated." Her x-ray diffraction studies confirmed the Watson-Crick DNA model and earned her a prominent place in the history of science.
The lives and careers of these most famous women in medical history demonstrate the incredible impact that women have had on the field of medicine. From pioneering doctors and nurses to groundbreaking researchers, these women broke down barriers, made groundbreaking discoveries, and improved the lives of millions of people. Their legacy continues to inspire women to pursue careers in medicine and to make their own contributions to the field. The most famous women in medical history serve as a reminder that women have always been a vital part of the medical profession and will continue to be so for generations to come.
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FAQs on Famous Women in Medical History
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States in the year 1849.
Written by Courtney Williams, NP
Courtney Williams is a passionate Nurse Practitioner who offers cutting-edge services like Hormone Optimization management and advanced Peptide Therapy to help you achieve optimal health and wellness. Her dedication to longevity and continuous education in anti-aging medicine ensures she is up to date with the latest research and techniques that can help you "live more and age smarter".