September is Women in Medicine Month.
Why celebrate women physicians?
In 1860 the United States had 200 women physicians.
By 1900, there were 7000.
Since 1975, the number of female physicians has grown more than six-fold, from 35,626 to 333,294 in 2013. Women physicians comprise 35% of actively practicing physicians. Follow this link for a detailed timeline of
Last year, for the first time since Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the U.S. admitted to medical school in 1849, more women than men entered U.S. medical schools and approximately half of all medical students are now female. This trend will likely continue, as fewer men are applying to medical school and more women are.
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Why are more women entering medicine?
In general women still lag in entering the STEM fields– science, technology, engineering, math. But I think the most important factor spurring more women to enter medicine is the powerful example set by previous women physicians who have paved the way for us who entered medicine later.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
The first woman graduate of a United States medical school was born in Bristol England in 1821. (thank you, UK readers). Elizabeth Blackwell came to this country as a child and originally had no interest in medicine. But when a dying friend told her, “I would have been spared suffering if a woman had been my doctor”, she found her calling.
She was denied admission to multiple medical schools. The Geneva Medical College of New York submitted her application to the student body for a vote, and, as a joke, they voted to admit her. Well, the joke was on them as she enrolled, completed medical school and graduated in 1849.
Read more detail about How Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman doctor in the United States
With her sister, Emily Blackwell , who also graduated from medical school, and a German physician, Marie Zakrzewska, they opened and ran the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857.
Dr. Emily Blackwell managed the Infirmary for 40 years. Dr. Marie Zakrzewska moved to Boston when she founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which trained women physicians and cared for the poor.
Due to failing health, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell retired from practice in the 1870s.
The Physicians Mom Group (PMG) declared Dr. Blackwell’s birthday February 3 as National Women Physicians Day. This day celebrates all the significant contributions that women physicians make daily, none of which would have been possible without Elizabeth Blackwell.
Dr. Blackwell embodied the ABC characteristics of extraordinary women physicians-
Attentive, Brave, Compassionate
Women physician members of CMDA providing medical care in Ecuador
Dr.Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Prior to founding her hospital, Dr.Zakrzewska served as professor at the New England Female Medical College. That school produced another notable women physician, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.
Dr. Crumpler graduated in 1864, becoming the first African-American woman to earn the M.D. in the United States. After practicing in Boston, she moved to Virginia where she and other black physicians cared for freed slaves, who otherwise would have had no access to medical care. In 1883 Dr. Crumpler wrote a book of medical advice for women and children, titled A Book of Medical Discourses, one of the earliest medical publications by an African American.
Dr. Virginia Apgar
More recently, a woman physician’s work has impacted the lives of countless babies and their families. If you have had a baby, or been born within the past 60 years, you benefited from the work of Virginia Apgar, M.D.
She was neither an obstetrician or a pediatrician, but an anesthesiologist. As she observed deliveries of infants she proposed a scale to rate how well a newborn was adapting to life outside the mother.
She considered 5 factors:
- heart rate
- respiratory (breathing) rate,
- muscle tone,
- reflexes, and
- color-pink (warm) or blue(cold)
And assigned each a score- 0, 1, or 2, at 1 minute of age, and again at 5 minutes.
So a newborn had a potential score as low as 0 and as high as 10.
The higher the score, referred to as the Apgar score, the more likely the baby was healthy and would do well. The lower the score meant the baby was in trouble, and needed intensive medical attention.
After testing the use of the rating scale over several years, doctors starting using it routinely; so for the past 50-60 years almost all babies have been “graded” with an Apgar score at birth. The Apgar score is used widely throughout the world.
Dr. Apgar, who played violin and cello in her college orchestra, was appointed the first full professor of medicine at Columbia University and also was a director for the March of Dimes.
Dr. Laurel Salton Clark
More recently, Dr. Laurel Clark served her country as a flight surgeon with the U.S. Navy. She along with her husband Dr. Jonathon Clark joined NASA as astronauts.
Clark made her first space flight on Space Shuttle Columbia during STS-107 as a mission specialist. The extended-duration mission was dedicated to scientific research. The STS-107 crew successfully conducted more than 80 experiments.
On February 1, 2003 Clark and the STS-107 crew perished during re-entry as Columbia broke up over Texas en route to a landing in Florida. She amassed 15 days, 22 hours and 20 minutes in space.
During a memorial service at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, on Feb. 4, 2003, President George W. Bush emphasized Clark’s love for her family and her work.
“Laurel Salton Clark was a physician and a flight surgeon who loved adventure, loved her work, loved her husband and her son,” he said.
“A friend who heard Laurel speaking to Mission Control said there was a smile in her voice. Laurel conducted some of the experiments as Columbia orbited the Earth and described seeing new life emerged from a tiny cocoon. ‘Life,’ she said, ‘continues in a lot of places and life is a magical thing.'”
In this emotional interview, Dr. Jonathon Clark remembers his wife, who “sacrificed her life for space research.”
Please see these related posts about women physicians who are Changing the Face of Medicine
Thanks to the American Medical Association for this post’s featured image.
Thank you for joining me to celebrate women physicians. If you haven’t met me already, please visit my bio page here-
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