updated February 3, 2023
Why celebrate women physicians?
In 1860 the United States had 200 women physicians.
By 1900, there were 7000.
The number of female physicians has increased from
35,626 in 1975 to 404, 000 in 2023.
Women physicians comprise 37% of actively practicing physicians in the United States.
A minority no longer
In 2018, for the first time since Elizabeth Blackwell entered medical school in 1849,the first woman to do so, 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.My medical school graduating class of 1978 at our 30th reunion; the original class was larger, 150 students, but the percentage of women was the same as in this photo. (I’m in the pink dress)
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Why are more women entering medicine?
In general women still lag men 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-first female physician
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. Through a series of acquisitions and name changes over the next 100 years, the Infirmary evolved into a hospital that is a leader in New York City-the
New York-Presbyterian/ Lower Manhattan Hospital
is a not-for-profit, acute care, teaching hospital in Lower Manhattan south of Greenwich Village, near Wall Street, Stock Exchange, city government, 1 World Trade Center, and the 9/11 Memorial,
The Blackwell sisters’ infirmary now cares for 100,000 outpatient visits and 6,000 surgical procedures annually.
As Lower Manhattan’s only emergency department, the hospital treats 32,000 patients annually and provides more than 5,000 ambulance transports.
and on September 11, 2001, the hospital treated about 1,500 victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center
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
Dr.Rebecca Lee Crumpler-first Black female physician
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-first full professor of medicine
Another 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.
The Apgar scoring system for newborn babies
Dr. Apgar was not 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 physical findings of a newborn 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.The five findings are-
- heart rate
- respiratory (breathing) rate,
- muscle tone,
- reflexes, and
- color-pink (warm) or blue(cold)
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-physician in space
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.
Dr. 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.”
Changing the Face of Medicine
Women physicians are changing the face of medicine, not only in the way doctors look, but in the way physicians interact with patients and each other. Women doctors are leaders in humanitarian care, government service, social media, and innovative ways to provide care. Your next doctor may be one of these women.
The surprising new doctors caring for you
exploring and celebrating the HEARTS OF women in 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-
Meet Dr. Aletha
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