Even though it was tough, women have pushed past hardship for decades to make medical discoveries and inventions. It’s empowering to look back on their achievements. Throughout history, these women came from different backgrounds to work for the greater good.
Here are ten influential women who changed the world of medicine.
1. Margaret Sanger
You can thank Margaret Sanger for the legalization of birth control in the United States. She advocated for women’s reproductive rights and believed women should have a say in their pregnancy. After working as a visiting nurse, she noticed a connection between poverty and lack of birth control access. Because of that, she opened a birth control clinic in 1923. Eventually, that clinic became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
2. Tracey McNamara
Tracey McNamara is a professor of pathology at the Western University of Health Sciences. In 1999, she linked the death of wild birds to recent cases of West Nile Virus in humans. In doing so, her work highlighted the connection between human and animal disease. She has received many awards for her research and continues to make significant contributions to her field.
3. Virginia Apgar
Virginia Apgar’s name might sound familiar. If it does, it’s because there’s a famous medical system with her surname. Apgar was an American doctor who specialized in neonatal care. In 1933, she completed her M.D. and became the first female director in her hospital. After some time, she became invested in the health of newborns and created a scoring system that would test it. This scoring system is called the Apgar Score, after its creator. Her system saves newborns’ lives in hospitals nationwide.
4. Gerty Cori
Gerty Theresa Cori was the first woman in the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in science. Although Cori was born in Prague, she moved to America with her husband. After coming to America, Cori and her husband did a lot of research together — and many people valued her husband’s work over hers.
However, her research transformed the study of biology by revealing how the body stores and releases cellular energy. Even though more people valued her husband at the time, people now think of Cori as one of the most influential women in medicine.
5. Antonia Novello
Antonia Novello is the first woman and the first Hispanic appointed as the Surgeon General of the United States. As a child, she lived with a medical condition in Puerto Rico. Because her family couldn’t afford the treatment, Novello spent her whole childhood sick. She decided to become a doctor because of this experience.
Since Novello wanted to help sick children, she began her career working in pediatrics. In 1990, she became the Surgeon General of the United States.
6. Maud Menten
Maud Menten was among the first Canadian women to obtain a medical doctorate. She eventually achieved six degrees from different universities, including three doctorates. After her schooling, she created something called the Michaelis-Menten equation. This equation made a breakthrough in everyone’s understanding of biological reactions. Consequently, Menten’s discovery changed the way people study these reactions.
7. Helen Rodríguez Trías
The first Latina president of the American Public Health Association was Helen Rodríguez Trías. In her first three years at University Hospital in San Juan, infant mortality declined by 50%. In addition to this, she was passionate about helping others and advocated for women’s rights. Since she viewed feminism through the lens of race and poverty, she was vocal about getting equality. Her work and activism got her recognition — in 2001, the president gifted her the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Besides her work in activism, Trías was also a medical director of New York State’s AIDS Institute. While there, she worked to provide a voice for women and children affected by HIV. She believed women needed equal access to care. Her work is still relevant since an average of only 19% of subjects in modern clinical trials for AIDS are female.
8. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first woman to earn an M.D. degree in the United States. Before getting her degree, she faced prejudice because she was an African American woman. Despite the challenges, Crumpler earned a doctorate and wrote about medical advice for women and children.
9. Aida Habtezion
Aida Habtezion is the Chief Medical Officer of Pfizer. She is board certified in Gastroenterology in the U.S. and Canada. In her early life, she grew up in Eastern Africa with a family that inspired her adoration for science and medicine. Because she loved medicine, she decided to make it her job. Habtezion is a tenured professor at Stanford University and has received multiple research awards.
10. Ogino Ginko
The first registered female doctor in Japan was Ogino Ginko. After her husband infected her with a sexually transmitted disease, Ogino realized how necessary female doctors were. Eventually, the Japanese government recognized Ogino as a doctor in 1885. This massive step allowed her to provide expert and comforting care to many.
Women Working Together
While none of these women worked directly together, their impacts on medicine helped empower each other. These women were pioneers in their fields who ensured generations of women after could follow in their footsteps.