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10 Women in Medicine to Motivate You Through Medical School

For International Women’s Day, Blueprint celebrates the women throughout history who made monumental strides towards equality in the field of medicine. Learn about these 10 trailblazers selected by the Blueprint team!

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)

Elizabeth Blackwell was a social reformer and pioneer in promoting education for women in medicine. She was the first female graduate of an American medical school in 1949.

Though Blackwell was not initially interested in a career in medicine, she began applying to medical schools after a friend became sick and confided that her care would have been improved with a female physician. Blackwell was rejected from each medical school she applied to, except Geneva Medical College in New York, where the male students unanimously voted for her acceptance in 1847.

Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 and gave lectures about the importance of the profession of medicine and educating women. She later went on to found the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874  and was the first woman to serve on the Medical Register of the General Medical Council for the United Kingdom. Though Blackwell faced adversity, she gained some media support and published her first work, The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls. 

In 2016, National Women Physicians Day was declared a national holiday, paying tribute to Dr. Blackwell for her role in expanding the field of medicine for women.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African-American woman to earn an MD in the United States. While working as a nurse, Crumpler’s attending physician recommended her to attend the New England Female Medical College in 1860, a time when opportunities for women physicians were growing due to the demands of medical care for Civil War veterans. Crumpler received a scholarship to attend and became the first African-American woman to become a formally-trained physician.

Crumpler practiced medicine while persevering through intense racism and sexism, often being ignored by male physicians. The focus of her practice was caring for African-American women and children facing poverty. She later worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves who were denied care by white physicians.

Her book, A Book of Medical Discourses (1883), included medical advice for maternal and pediatric medical care as well as her own political, social, and moral commentary. Her legacy lives on through The Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African-American women.

Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919)

Mary Walker was an abolitionist, prohibitionist, prisoner of war, and surgeon who earned her medical degree at Syracuse Medical College, where she graduated with honors as the second woman to graduate from a U.S. medical school in 1855. She is recorded as the first female surgeon in the United States.

In 1863, she became the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army after several years of practice as a nurse. Walker volunteered for the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War and often crossed battle lines to care for soldiers and civilians. She was captured as a spy by Confederate troops in April 1864. After the war, she went on to serve as the supervisor of a female prison and the head of an orphanage. She remains the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Of note, Walker was well-known for contesting traditional female wardrobe, and strongly opposed women’s long skirts with numerous petticoats. She began experimenting with different skirt lengths and layers—all with men’s trousers underneath—and was frequently arrested for wearing men’s clothing.

Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912)

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake was a physician, teacher, and feminist who led the campaign to secure women’s access to university education. She founded two medical schools for women in London and Edinburgh.

In 1869, she applied to the University of Edinburgh on behalf of a group of seven women (known as the Edinburgh Seven). Her application was approved and the University of Edinburgh became the first British university to admit women. As the women began to demonstrate that they could compete on equal terms with the male students, hostility towards them grew. A riot outside of their exam room in 1870, known as the Surgeon’s Hall Riots, led to national headlines and won the group many supporters. However, influential members of the medical faculty eventually persuaded the university to refuse graduation to women.

Nevertheless, Sophia Jex-Blake attended the University of Berne and graduated with her MD in 1877. Later that same year, she qualified as Licentiate of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians of Ireland and became only the third woman in Britain registered with the General Medical Council. Meanwhile, she established the London School of Medicine for Women and campaigned for the Medical Act, which required medical authorities to award medical licenses regardless of gender.

Sophia Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh and opened an outpatient clinic for poor women. Three months later, she moved her clinic to larger premises and opened Scotland’s first hospital for women staffed entirely by women.

Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906)

Mary Corinna Putnam Jacobi was a medical physician, teacher, scientist, writer, and suffragist. She was the first woman to graduate from a U.S. school of pharmacy in 1863 and received her MD from the Female (later Women’s) Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1864. She was a pioneer in developing pediatrics as a medical specialty.

Mary Jacobi was also the first woman to study medicine at the University of Paris. She graduated with honors in 1871 and returned to the United States to establish her own private medical practice. She helped to found the Women’s Medical Association of New York City and served as its president from 1874 to 1903.

Jacobi wrote over 120 medical articles and nine books and was a prominent supporter of women’s suffrage. She was one of six prominent suffragists who founded the League for Political Education after the defeat of the women’s suffrage amendment to the New York State Constitution. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. 

Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)

Susan La Flesche Picotte is widely acknowledged as the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree. She was an active social reformer and physician, working to prevent and treat tuberculosis and to help other Omaha navigate the bureaucracy of the Office of Indian Affairs.

As a child on the Omaha reservation, La Flesche witnessed a sick woman die because the local white doctor would not give her care. This tragedy was her inspiration to train as a physician and care for her community of people on the Omaha Reservation. La Flesche left the reservation for Elizabeth, New Jersey, studied at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, and applied to the Woman’s Medical College in 1886. She completed the three-year medical program in just two years and graduated at the top of her class in 1889.

La Flesche returned to the Omaha reservation in 1889 to take a position as a physician at the government boarding school. For several years, she traveled the reservation caring for patients. Picotte sought to educate her community about preventive medicine and public health issues, including temperance. She supported measures such as coercion and punishment to dissuade individuals from alcohol consumption within the Omaha community.

Picotte worked on public health issues in the wider community, including school hygiene, food sanitation, and efforts to combat the spread of tuberculosis. She also campaigned for the building of a hospital on the reservation, which was finally completed in 1913.

Yoshioka Yayoi (1871-1959)

Yoshioka Yayoi was a Japanese physician, educator, and women’s rights activist. She founded the Tokyo Women’s Medical University in 1900, which was the first medical school for women in Japan.

Yayoi trained as a physician at the Saisei-Gakusha School of Medicine and became the 27th woman to receive a medical license in Japan. After facing criticism and difficulty during her own career as a female physician, she resolved to start her own school of medicine for women, which she successfully completed before she was 30 years old. By 1930, nearly 1,000 women had graduated from the medical university.

Yayoi was politically active throughout her life and Yayoi was politically active throughout her life she advocated for sex education with many of her colleagues. Her legacy lives on today as she is depicted on an 80-yen Japanese commemorative postage stamp, and a memorial museum dedicated to her exists in Kakegawa, Shizuoka.

Catharine Macfarlane (1877–1969)

Catherine Macfarlane was an OB/GYN who founded one of the first uterine cancer screening programs in the U.S. and actively promoted cancer screening for women. Additionally, she was the first woman fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the first woman president of the Obstetrical Society of Philadelphia.

Macfarlane entered the University of Philadelphia at just 16 years old and earned her medical degree at 19 years old from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She continued to pursue postgraduate work in gynecological urology at Johns Hopkins University.

Throughout her career, MacFarlane was a strong advocate of women’s suffrage and the right to obtain birth control, in addition to her support of medical treatment and education of women. Near the end of her career, Macfarlane began research on breast self-exams with the Philadelphia Division of the American Cancer Society. She was appointed to the head of the Medical Women’s National Association, Vice President of the Medical Women’s International Association, and Chairman of the Cancer Committee of the Philadelphia Medical Society.

Joyce Nichols (1940-2012)

Joyce Clayton Nichols was the first woman to be formally educated as a physician assistant (PA) and was also the first African-American woman to practice as a PA. She attended Carolina College and graduated in 1965 as a licensed practical nurse. That same year, the first two-year PA program was founded at Duke University, where Nichols happened to be working as a nurse. Though the PA program was originally intended for ex-military corpsmen, Nichols won the support of the faculty and began the program in 1969. As a PA student, Nichols fought for her right to earn the same stipend as the other trainees and advocated to improve medical education for women.

When Nichols graduated, she was able to get funds to open a rural, satellite health clinic and provided healthcare to rural communities. Nichols was also the first minority member to serve on the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) Board of Directors and established the AAPA Minority Affairs Committee, where she served as the first committee chair.

Nichols retired in 1995 and was inducted into the Duke University PA Alumni Hall of fame in 2002 for her advocacy and work serving low-income populations. She is now lauded as a matriarch and role model for minorities in the PA profession.

Antonia Novello (1944- )

Antonia Novello is a Puerto Rican physician and public health administrator who served as the 14th U.S. Surgeon General, becoming the first female Surgeon General and the first Hispanic Surgeon General.

As a child, Novello suffered from congenital megacolon, which inspired her career path as a physician so she could help other sick children. Novello earned a scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine and, after earning her MD, completed her training in pediatric nephrology at the University of Michigan.

Novello spent two years in private practice but felt called to the public health field. She joined the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps in 1978 and became deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, where she focused on pediatric AIDS.

Novello continued to work in pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital, and in 1982, earned her degree in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She helped draft the Organ Transplantation Procurement Act of 1984 as well as warning labels on cigarette packages.

Novello served as U.S. Surgeon General from 1990-1993 and focused on the health of women, children, and minorities, and launched initiatives to combat underage drinking and smoking, pediatric AIDS, and domestic violence. After her term, she was nominated by Governor George Pataki to become the New York commissioner of health in 1999, where she led one of the largest public health agencies in the United States.