The Present Day
Great strides have been made in medicine by women and for women in the past century. However, there is still much work to be done. While men and women matriculate into medical school at similar rates (women being slightly higher at 50.5%), their medical careers advance very differently.
This difference escalates the higher in academia you go. In 2019, only 26% of full professors, 19% of department chairs and a mere 18% of medical school deans were women. This same year, it was found that only 35% of the practicing physicians in the United States were women.
Research analyzing these differences have found that factors such as sexual harassment, traditional gender roles, wage gap and patient sexism all contribute to women becoming less involved in medicine or leaving it altogether. Female physicians face this discrimination even in areas where there initially seems to be a bias in favor of them, such as obstetrics in gynecology. Despite making up 59% of practicing OBGYNs in 2018, female physicians made approximately $38,000/year less than male physician OBGYNs.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) - “The OG”
Elizabeth Blackwell is known as the first female physician in the United States, earning her medical degree in 1849. While applying to medical school in the United States, she was turned away from every school and instead encouraged to
apply in Paris or to disguise herself as a man in order to be accepted.
She is quoted as saying: “As to the opinion of people, I don't care one straw personally; though I take so much pains, as a matter of policy, to propitiate it, and shall always strive to do so; for I see continually how the highest good is eclipsed by the violent or disagreeable forms which contain it.”
Dr. Blackwell was finally accepted into Geneva Medical College, currently known as State University of New York Upstate Medical University, located in Syracuse, New York. However, given her “unique case,” it was put to the all-male student body to elect whether or not she may attend and if there was one vote against her, she would not be permitted to matriculate. All 150 male students agreed she should attend. Dr. Blackwell continued to face sexism in her work for the rest of her life, with many hospitals refusing to recognize her despite her degree. She eventually founded the London School of Medicine for Women, and continued efforts to promote medical education for women.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831 - 1895)
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African-American woman to earn her medical degree in the United States. She began her medical career as a nurse, and in 1860 she was accepted into the New England Female Medical College. That same year, women only made up 0.5% of all US physicians. Furthermore, over the next 60 years, there would only be 65 African-American female physicians.
Dr. Crumpler faced much adversity in the form of racism and sexism from her community and colleagues. Despite this, she became an advocate and an author, in addition to working as a physician. Dr. Crumpler worked with a federal agency that helped more than 4 million slaves transition out of slavery after the Civil War. Additionally, her books focused on addressing ailments affecting children, youth and women. Dr. Crumpler dedicated her work “to mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.”
Virginia Apgar (1909-1974)
Does the name Virginia Apgar sound familiar? It should! Dr. Apgar graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1933. She was discouraged from pursuing surgery by a mentor, and instead went into anesthesiology and became the first director of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital’s new division of anesthesia in 1938. Dr. Apgar went on to further study the effects of anesthesia, labor and delivery on a newborn’s health. At the time, there was very little guidance for physicians on how to screen and provide intervention for the newborn which led to preventable loss of life. Dr. Apgar developed her well-known checklist (APGAR) to assess newborn health which is still in daily use by physicians over 80 years later.
Changing the face of newborn medical care was not enough, so Dr. Apgar began a second career at 50 years old pursuing a master’s in public health and becoming the Vice President of Medical Affairs for the March of Dimes. She was credited by former US Surgeon General Julius Richmond as having “done more to improve the health of mothers, babies and unborn infants than anyone else in the 20th century.”