5 women who changed the course of U.S. medicine forever

Female physicians have been significant contributors to medicine throughout history, despite the many barriers they faced in entering the world of science. For many years, men represented the majority in medicine: In 1860, there were only 200 female physicians in the United States. In 2018, more women than men applied to U.S. medical schools for the first time since 2004, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Today, women in medicine continue to have an increasingly important role in U.S. healthcare. Here, we’re honored to celebrate five female physicians who helped pave the way for their successors.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1910)

Elizabeth Blackwell, MD

British-born Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States in 1849. At that time, medical schools were not open to women. Dr. Blackwell studied medicine independently and submitted multiple applications before she was finally admitted to Geneva Medical School in New York, when the all-male student body voted to approve her admission — reportedly as a joke. According to her book, published in 1895, Dr. Blackwell decided to become a doctor when a dying friend confided that she would have suffered less had her physician been a woman. Dr. Blackwell co-founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, extending care to the underserved while paving the way for generations of women.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD, became the first African-American woman physician in the United States in 1864. At that time, only about 300 of the nearly 55,000 U.S. physicians were women. Raised near Philadelphia, Dr. Crumpler is also one of the first African-American authors of a medical publication: A Book of Medical Discourse. Dr. Crumpler worked as a nurse before being accepted to the New England Female Medical College. After graduation, she practiced in Richmond, Virginia, right after the Civil War. During that time of extreme racial discrimination, Dr. Crumpler practiced alongside other African-American doctors to care for freed slaves, and also worked with the Freeman’s Bureau and countless other community and missionary groups.

Dr. Helen B. Taussig (1898-1986)

Helen Taussig, MD

Helen Brooke Taussig, MD, is known as the founder of pediatric cardiology for her innovative work with “blue baby” syndrome. Dr. Taussig hailed from Massachusetts and aspired to study medicine at Harvard, but was denied admission because the university did not accept women into its academic degree program. Instead, she earned her degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In addition to developing the concept for a procedure that extended the lives of children born with tetralogy of Fallot, she was also celebrated for her work in banning thalidomide. In 1965 she became the first woman president of the American Heart Association.

Dr. Virginia Apgar (1909 – 1974)

Virginia Apgar, MD

Virginia Apgar, MD, was an obstetrical anesthesiologist best known for developing the Apgar newborn scoring system. A New Jersey native, Dr. Apgar was one of very few women to complete her graduation during the 1930s from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and she was the first woman there to be named a full professor. Dr. Apgar was also one of the first American women to specialize in anesthesia. She was the first medical director at the March of Dimes, and the first to recognize prematurity as a serious problem and demanded a focus on the importance of early prenatal care and healthy pregnancy.

Dr. Antonia Novello (1944 – )

Antonio Novello, MD

Antonio Novello, MD, became the first woman — and the first person of Hispanic origin — to serve as the U.S. Surgeon General, from 1990 to 1993. Dr. Novello obtained her medical degree in her native Puerto Rico, and eventually joined the National Institutes of Health, where she rose to the deputy directorship of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 1986. In her role as Surgeon General, Dr. Novello focused on the health of women, minorities, and children. After that she became a representative for UNICEF, where she continued to address women’s and children’s health issues, and in 1999 she became commissioner of the New York State Department of Health.

Female physicians continue to play a vital role in healthcare today, across every specialty, setting, and practice alternative, including locum tenens.

Updated 3/8/2022

About the author

Lisa Daggett

Lisa Daggett is well-versed on the topic of locum tenens staffing and was a regular contributor to LocumLife, Healthcare Traveler, and Travel Nurse magazines. She served as associate editor of RN Magazine and as an editorial assistant for Business & Health.