While women have traditionally served as the caregivers of the health of their families and communities, it isn't until comparatively recent times that women were admitted to the ranks of formal medical practitioners. Historical records of the Western world indicate that the first named female physician was Metrodora, a Greek doctor Greek womansometime around 200-400 CE. She penned the oldest medical book known to have been written by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women

Ancient Egypt had several examples of women working as doctors; perhaps the best known was Meit Ptah who lived around 2700 BCE, living and practicing around the same time as Imhotep. Peseshet was another female physician, hailing from the Fourth Dynasty (around 2600 BCE). She enjoyed the title of "Lady Overseer of the Female Physicians." 

During the Medieval era in Western Europe, women were permitted limited roles as healers, primarily as nuns. Celibate women were allowed to study and acquire skills in the healing arts. The best known of these healers was Hildegard of Bingen. Born in Rheinhesse in 1098, the tenth child of noble parents, she developed a reputation for spirituality as a child and thus it seemed a natural progression for her to become a nun.  In addition to writingHildegard of Bingen about her religious visions and composing religious hymns and poems, Hildegard also penned Subtililates Diversarum Naturarum Creaturarum (The Subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Created Things), in which she laid out suggested medical remedies for common ailments. 

American medical history hails Elizabeth Blackwell as a trailblazer: the first woman to receive a medical degree from a United States university. Universally discouraged by male physicians from pursuing her Young Elizabeth Blackwelldream of a medical education, Elizabeth earned a living as a schoolteacher while training informally in a physician's household. After failing to gain admission to any of the established medical schools, she applied to a number of smaller, less prestigious institutions, and received a single acceptance letter - from Geneva Medical College in Geneva, NY.  

She arrived in Geneva on November 6, 1847, several weeks after the beginning of the term. She was later to learn that the faculty had opposed her admission to the school, but felt unable to reject a candidate who was otherwise well qualified for admission. They referred the decision to the students, who believed the request was a joke and voted unanimously to admit her. Elizabeth had no notion of the furor that her presence in the medical school would cause. Reflecting on her experience, she wrote, "I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor's wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent." 

Believing Elizabeth Blackwell's female sensibilities would be offended by some of the subject matter, the instructors of the medical school requested her absence during a discussion of the male reproductive system. Blackwell refused politely, and the other students, who had been impressed with her dedication and determination, supported her refusal. She received her M.D. in 1849, and later launched a clinic that became the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children, along with her sister Emily and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. This institution gave other aspiring female physicians and nurses training in the practical skills they needed - an opportunity denied them by the traditionally male medical establishment. 

A contemporary of Elizabeth Blackwell, Harriot Hunt, also attempted to gain admittance to medical school at Harvard - or even to simply attend the lectures. When her application to Harvard Medical School was advanced byHarriot Hunt Oliver Wendell Holmes, then dean of the school, the students vociferously objected to her admittance. Their resolutions of rejection read:

Resolved, that no woman of true delicacy would be willing in the presence of men to listen to the discussion of subjects that necessarily come under consideration of the students of medicine.

Resolved, that we object to having the company of any female forced upon us, who is disposed to unsex herself, and to sacrifice her modesty by appearing with men in the lecture room.

Ultimately, Harriot Hunt was able, despite opposition, to obtain a medical degree in Syracuse as a homeopathic physician.

While women were slowly being accepted into medical schools, and separate medical colleges for women were being established, the move toward equality in medical education in the 19th century was glacially slow. Harvard professor Edward H. Clarke opined in 1874 that women seeking advanced education would develop "monstrous brains and puny bodies" and "abnormally weak digestion." 

Forging the path to a career as a physician was exponentially more difficult for women of color. In many parts of the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries, even registering to vote was dangerous and fraught with problems; applying to medical school must have seemed like an impossible dream.

New England Female Medical CollegeRebecca Lee Crumpler challenged both the prevailing prejudice against the place of women and systemic prejudice against African Americans by becoming the first African American woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree. Born in 1831 in Delaware, she worked as a nurse for eight years before being admitted to the New England Female Medical College (pictured left) in 1860. Her graduation in 1864 made her the first black woman to earn a formal degree as a physician.

Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston for a short while before moving to Richmond, Virginia at the conclusion of the Civil War. She joined other black physicians in caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have been denied access to medical care, and became passionately involved in the care of the indigent. Although Crumpler and her colleagues encountered ferocious racism in the postwar South, she persisted in her work in Virginia for several years before returning to Boston. In 1883, she penned a book about her experiences in medical practice, titled Book of Medical Discourses. 

In spite of the fact that she grew up in the Jim Crow South in Pittsburg, Texas, Mildred Jefferson was determined to achieve a medical degree. In 1947, she was admitted to Harvard Medical School, and in 1951 became the first black woman to graduate from that institution. 

Jefferson pursued a career as a surgeon at Boston University Medical CenterMildred Jefferson and a professor of surgery at the university's medical school. She was famously quoted as saying, "I am at once a physician, a citizen and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live." 

These female medical pioneers blazed a difficult path; perhaps they sensed that the future of the female gender was on their shoulders, and that their successes (or failures) would either open or close doors for other women. By the end of the 19th century, there were more than 7,000 women physiciains in the United States, comprising roughly 5.5% of the total number of doctors in the country. 

Unfortunately, the 20th century witnessed a decline in the number of women in the medical field. In 1949, 100 years after Elizabeth Blackwell made her historic entrance into medical school, still only 5.5% of students entering medical school were women. As the feminist movement gained a foothold in American culture, and the passage of Title IX of the Higher Education Act (which prohibited federally funded educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of gender), the number of women pursuing medical education increased significantly. In 1974, 22.4% of new medical school entrants were women; by the close of the 20th century, that number had risen to 45.6%.

Women are increasingly being represented at the highest levels of medicine; Antonia Novello shattered a political glass ceiling when she was named the first female Surgeon General of the United States under George H.W. Bush. Since Novello's tenure, two other women - Joycelyn Elders and Regina Benjamin - have filled this prestigious office.

Although women have made significant gains in the medical field, a substantial gender gap persists. 48% of all medical school graduates are women; however, they comprise only 34.3% of all physicians and surgeons, and a shockingly low 15.9% of medical school deans. The numbers are even more grim for women of color. In addition, women in academic medicine experience a wage gap - they are paid substantially less than their male colleagues for performing the same jobs.

The paucity of women at the highest levels of academic medicine necessarily constrains medical fields from attaining levels of excellence that would otherwise be possible. The pursuit of excellence requires a pursuit of gender egalitarianism. 

Women doctors 1900s



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