In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting female pioneers in the fight for women’s health. While breaking societal and gender expectations for their era, these four individuals improved medical care for other women and paved the way for future female health professionals.
Elizabeth Blackwell, MD (1821–1910)
1849: Blackwell becomes the first American woman to receive a medical degree.
Perhaps the most well-known woman in medicine, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the U.S. to receive an MD degree. She was inspired to pursue medicine after a deathly ill friend said she believed she would have received better care from a female doctor.
Blackwell’s journey was not easy. After being turned away by over 10 medical schools, Blackwell’s professor suggested she disguise herself as a man to gain admission. Determined to pursue her passion as a proud woman, she declined. Eventually, she was accepted into New York’s Geneva Medical College, where she received her degree in 1849.
In 1857, she co-founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. The hospital served underprivileged communities, and supported and encouraged women hoping to pursue careers in medicine. Blackwell went on to start many other hospitals and initiatives, and was a lifelong advocate for female doctors.
Mary Putnam Jacobi, MD (1842–1906)
1872: Jacobi opens the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women.
Mary Putnam Jacobi was an esteemed physician, author, activist, and outspoken advocate for women’s rights. She rose to prominence as a harsh critic of the exclusion of women from the practice of medicine.
In 1872, Jacobi founded the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women (later the Women's Medical Association of New York City). At the time, men in medicine claimed that a medical education would make women physically ill, and that female physicians endangered their profession. In response, Jacobi published an essay entitled, "The Question of Rest for Women during Menstruation," in which she refuted these claims. Using in depth research, she provided irrefutable proof of the stability of a woman's health throughout her monthly cycle. Over the course of her career, Jacobi authored more than 120 scientific articles and nine books, and remained a staunch advocate of women’s right to seek medical education and training.
Margaret Higgins Sanger, RN (1879–1966)
1916: Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in the United States.
Margaret Higgings Sanger is best known for her work in advocating for safe and effective birth control for women. At a time when female reproductive rights were not recognized, Sanger faced constant backlash for her work in the field of birth control. However, she persevered, and opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916.
Her research led to the development of one of the first oral contraceptives, which she coined “birth control.” She later founded the American Birth Control League, which is now known as Planned Parenthood. Her pioneering vision has helped countless women all over the world take control of their reproductive rights.
Virginia Apgar, MD (1909–1974)
1953: Apgar creates the first effective system to assess the health of newborn babies.
Virginia Apgar initially trained as an anesthesiologist, becoming Columbia’s first female professor in 1949. In 1953, she developed the Apgar score, the first test to scientifically assess a newborn’s health risks and need for medical attention. Before this, physicians had little guidance on assessing newborns, often losing babies who could have been saved.
Apgar went on to study the effects of anesthesia, labor, and delivery on a newborn’s health, and became an advocate and educator for the prevention of birth defects. She received multiple awards and honors for her work and dedication to medicine. A former U.S. Surgeon General once said that Apgar had “done more to improve the health of mothers, babies, and unborn infants than anyone else in the 20th century.”
The Apgar test is still used in hospitals today, and is responsible for considerably reducing infant mortality rates. It is considered the gold standard for determining the health of a newborn.