Although most of today’s medical students in the United States are women, equality for women in the medical field remains elusive.
Women physicians encounter discrimination from both inside and outside the medical field. A Medscape survey of over 60,000 doctors revealed that 2017 salaries for women physicians were nearly 30 percent less than those of their male colleagues. In some areas of the country, such as Charleston, S.C., the annual pay disparity approached closer to 40 percent. The percentage of women deans of American medical schools remains under 20 percent.
Medicine can be particularly hostile to physicians of color. In a recent survey, 70 percent of African-American physicians and 69 percent of Asian physicians reported encountering prejudice from their patients.
Nevertheless, studies have consistently highlighted the value of women in health care. Research has demonstrated women physicians’ capacities to provide equal, if not better, care to patients.
One extensive study of over a million elderly patients revealed that patients of women physicians had a lower risk of death or hospital readmission than the patients of their male peers. So, while women planning to enter the medical profession still face a host of challenges, knowing some stories of medicine’s women pioneers may help to energize the next generation of great women in the field.
1) Elizabeth Blackwell — Blackwell was born in the early 1820s and, following her graduation from the Geneva Medical College in the late 1840s, went on to become the first woman to earn a medical degree from a U.S. medical university. After earning her degree, Blackwell worked tirelessly to encourage more women to enter the field.
In 1857, Blackwell created the New York Infirmary, an organization which allowed women of the time to develop their medical prowess while aiding lower-income communities, at a time when most mainstream physician training programs refused to accept women into their ranks.
2) Rebecca Lee Crumpler — In 1864, Crumpler earned her medical degree from the New England Female Medical College, an accomplishment which made her the first African-American woman in the country to graduate with a medical degree. Born in Delaware in the early 1830s, Crumpler dedicated much of her early life to a career in nursing. Although she had no formal training, she worked as a practicing nurse in Massachusetts for nearly a decade.
Soon after becoming a physician, Crumpler relocated from Massachusetts to Virginia, a move she felt would allow her to focus on treating women and children. Notably, Crumpler devoted much of her time and energy to the care of members of the African-American community, many of whom lacked adequate medical attention. In the early 1880s, Crumpler published Book of Medical Discourses, one of the earliest medical reports penned by an African-American physician.
3) Mary Eliza Mahoney — The daughter of former slaves, Mahoney was born in Massachusetts in the mid-1840s and grew up to become the first licensed African-American nurse in the United States.
For over a decade, Mahoney served as an employee of the New England Hospital for Women and Children, holding a variety of roles — from janitor to cook to nurse’s aide. When Mahoney reached her early 30s, the New England Hospital for Women and Children admitted her to its nursing school, one of the earliest formal nursing programs in the nation.
After successfully earning her degree, Mahoney began a career as a private nurse, wishing to avoid the racial and gender biases which pervaded public nursing at the time. Nevertheless, Mahoney continued to advocate for increasing the number of medical professionals of color, and in the early 1900s, she helped to establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. Later in her career, Mahoney went on to head the Howard Orphan Asylum, a New York City orphanage for African-American children.
4) Lillie Rosa Minoka-Hill — Born in the mid-1870s on the Akwesasne Reservation in New York, Minoka-Hill became the second Native-American woman in America to earn a medical degree. Minoka-Hill’s mother was a member of the Mohawk tribe. For the first few years of her life, Minoka-Hill grew up on the reservation with her mother’s family.
Nevertheless, once she turned five, Minoka-Hill’s father, a Quaker doctor, moved her to Pennsylvania. Despite the initial feelings of social isolation Minoka-Hill experienced as one of the only Native-American students at her new school, Minoka-Hill finished high school and, in 1899, graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Following her graduation from medical school, Minoka-Hill worked to provide medical attention to low-income communities at a nearby clinic and co-founded a private practice alongside one of her medical school classmates. In the early 1900s, Minoka-Hill and her husband relocated to Wisconsin, where, for years, she served as her town’s sole medical provider, treating ailments from influenza to malnutrition — often free of charge.
5) Dorothy Lavinia Brown — Although she lived in an orphanage for over 13 years, Brown became the first African-American woman in the South to serve as a medical surgeon, as well as the first African-American woman representative elected to the Tennessee state government.
Brown spent most of her early life as a ward of the Troy Orphan Asylum in upstate New York. When she was 15, Brown enrolled herself at the local high school, and soon after, she was taken in by a foster family. Brown graduated first in her high school class in the late 1930s, and just over a decade later, she earned her medical degree from Nashville’s Meharry Medical College.
Determined to become a surgeon, in spite of the lack of both women and African-American surgeons at the time, Brown went on to complete her residency at the George W. Hubbard Hospital. For over two decades, Brown served as the chief of surgery at the Riverside Hospital in Nashville. In the mid-1950s, Brown adopted the daughter of one of her patients, a decision which made her the first single adoptive mother in the state of Tennessee. In the mid-1960s, Brown decided to expand her involvement into the political sphere, becoming the first African-American woman to win a seat in Tennessee’s state legislature.