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8 Women Who Shaped the World of Medicine

03.02.2021 / Isabella Brown
8 Women Who Shaped the World of Medicine

March is Women’s History Month! This month exists to acknowledge and commemorate the many ways in which women have shaped our world today. Here at Oova, we believe that women should have full confidence and control over their bodies and health, as well as their careers and personal endeavors. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’ve put together a list of eight women healthcare pioneers who changed the world of medicine and healthcare into what we know today.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the US to receive a medical degree. She was motivated to pursue medicine after a friend of hers passed away. After being rejected from 10 medical schools, Blackwell was advised to disguise herself as a man to gain admission. She refused, asserting that her journey was a “moral crusade” that “must be pursued in the light of day, with public sanction, in order to accomplish its end.” Blackwell gained admission to the Geneva Medical College in New York. 

After graduating, she struggled to find work largely due to gender discrimination, and decided to co-found her own hospital. The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children served the poor, and encouraged other women to pursue careers in medicine. Blackwell also founded the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1867. Her efforts paved the way for other women with an interest in medicine. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was a role model for women in healthcare, and proof that women could succeed in the field. 

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman in the US to earn a medical degree. She became interested in medicine at an early age. “I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the suffering of others,” she wrote. Crumpler attended medical school at the New England Female Medical College in Boston, MA after working as a nurse for eight years. When she graduated in 1864, she was the first African American graduate of the school. 

Dr. Crumpler moved to Virginia following the Civil War to take care of formerly enslaved people. She dealt with racism and sexism throughout this experience, yet describes learning a lot about providing care and tending to her patients.

Mary Putnam Jacobi

Dr. Mary Jacobi was an advocate for gender equality within medical schools. She noted that women’s medical schools did not provide women with the same clinical experience as major hospitals. She founded the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women to combat the issues she experienced. 

Dr. Mary Jacobi debunked harmful myths surrounding menstruation in her influential essay, "The Question of Rest for Women during  Menstruation.” She refuted claims that exertion, including study, during menstruation was dangerous. Dr. Jacobi provided facts, charts, and data to illustrate the stability  of a woman's health, strength, and agility throughout  her monthly cycle. Both her paper provided irrefutable proof of the accuracy of her position.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte

Susan LaFlesche Picotte was motivated to pursue medicine after she saw a Native American woman die because a White doctor refused to care for her. Picotte later became the first Native American woman in the US to become a medical doctor. She attended the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and graduated at the top of her class. 

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte served a population of Native Americans on the Omaha reservation. In 1913, she opened a hospital in the reservation town of Waterhill, Nebraska.

Virginia Apgar

Dr. Virginia Apgar created a tool to scientifically assess a newborn’s health risks, which results in lifesaving finds. After graduating from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, Apgar became an anesthesiologist. She studies the effects of anesthesia, labor, and delivery on a newborn’s health, creating a checklist of health variables that saved many lives. She later worked at the March of Dimes as the Vice President of medical affairs, raising awareness of ways to prevent birth defects.

Patricia Goldman Rakic

After receiving her PhD from UCLA in 1963, Goldman Rakic achieved vital insights into the brain’s frontal lobes. She mapped out the region, educating others on the crucial functions of cognition, planning, and memory. Her research was unprecedented, and paved the way for scientist’s understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and more. 

Patricia Bath

Patricia Bath was the first African American to complete an ophthalmology residency in 1973. She noticed that rates of blindness and visual impairment were much higher at the Harlem Hospital’s eye clinic, which served many black patients, than at the eye clinic at Columbia University, which mostly served white pai. This finding inspired her to conduct a study which found African American patients were twice as likely as White patients to be blind. Throughout the rest of her career, Bath explored inequities in vision care. She created the discipline of community ophthalmology, which approaches vision care from the perspectives of community medicine and public health. 

Two years after completing her residency, she became the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute. In 1976, Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which established that "eyesight is a basic human right." In 1986, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, improving treatment for cataract patients. She patented the device in 1988, becoming the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent.

Joycelyn Elders  

Joycelyn Elders was the first person in Arkansas to become a board-certified pediatric endocrinologist. She was the first African American woman to serve as the U.S. Surgeon General. In 1987, Elders was appointed  to head the Arkansas Department of Health where she campaigned for clinics and expanded sex education. Two years later, Arkansas legislature passed that included sex education, substance abuse prevention and programs to promote self esteem.


Through adversity, gender discrimination, and doubt, these women blazed the trail for others to succeed in medicine and public health. Without their achievements, healthcare would not be what we know it to be today. These women are only a few of the many figures who have worked tirelessly to create a better healthcare system that can tend to the needs of all people.



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