One thing that has struck many of us during the current crisis is how indebted we are to the health-care workers who are at the frontlines, working tirelessly to keep us safe. In my neighborhood, people have rallied together to bang pots and pans and shout out words of encouragement to medical staff, and overall, I've been left feeling so inspired by the work of health-care professionals amidst this crisis.
As a history nerd, this got me thinking: in such a traditionally male-dominated field, where are the women in the history of the health sciences? We’ve all heard the few famous names like Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie, but surely there are other women who have contributed in their own way to the field of medicine. With that in mind, I got to digging through the records and discovered fascinating stories of heroines of the past who were pioneers in health care. So, without further ado, here are the brief lives of five inspiring but lesser-known women who have contributed to the health sciences.
Metrodora (ca. 200–400 A.D.)
We all know that the ancient Greeks heavily influenced the field of medicine—to this day, many doctors still swear the Hippocratic Oath, after the Greek physician Hippocrates. However, most of us don’t know about Metrodora, a Greek female physician who lived sometime between 200 and 400 A.D. In a time when medically minded women were relatively restricted to subjects like childbirth, Metrodora was ahead of her time in that she studied all aspects of women’s health. She wrote the first known medical text to be authored by a woman, titled On Women’s Diseases, which discusses a wide range of gynecological issues and general health information.
Marie Guenet de Saint-Ignace (1610–1646)
While the founding of modern nursing is credited to Victorian-era Florence Nightingale, religious sisters had been nursing patients and founding hospitals for centuries. There are countless names that deserve mentioning, but in early North American history, one woman’s story particularly stands out. Marie Guenet grew up in Rouen, France, in the early seventeenth century. When she was 14 years old, she joined the Augustinian Hospitallers to work in the hospital helping the sick. In 1639, with two other Hospitallers sisters (all in their twenties), Guenet sailed for the New World as part of an enterprise to establish a hospital in New France under its female foundress and benefactress, the Duchess d’Aiguillon. Guenet was elected and proclaimed as the first superior of the Hôtel-Dieu de Quebec, the first permanent hospital in North America north of Mexico. It still stands to this day, and the work of these early nuns laid the foundations of the health care system in Quebec. Guenet is the first in a long line of religious sisters that founded hospitals and other health-care facilities in Canada and the United States over the next couple centuries.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910)
Women have been involved in the care of the sick in informal ways from the beginning of time, particularly as midwives and healers. However, the more official medical learning institutions such as universities were largely restricted to men until the nineteenth century, with some exceptions. As the health sciences became more professionalized, modernized, and regulated, this resulted in women finding it more challenging to work in health care. But after what Elizabeth Blackwell described as a “moral crusade,” facing rejection from 10 medical schools in her pursuit of a degree, she was at last admitted to Geneva Medical College in New York and in 1849 became the first woman in the United States to be granted an M.D. degree. She went on to have an important career, co-founding the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children to serve the poor, and establishing the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1867, all with the goal of empowering future generations of women to pursue careers in medicine.
Mary Edwards Walker (1832–1919)
Following in Elizabeth Blackwell’s footsteps, Mary Edwards Walker pursued a medical education and graduated with an M.D. degree in 1855 from Syracuse Medical College. Once the Civil War broke out, Walker began volunteering as a nurse, tending to wounded soldiers and aiding the war effort. In 1863, she was appointed as an assistant surgeon, becoming the first woman to hold the position of U.S. Army Surgeon—and possibly the first female surgeon in the United States. She was briefly captured and imprisoned by the Confederate Army, and after her release, she went straight back to work as an army surgeon. After retiring, Walker was recognized for her brave contribution to the war effort and became the first woman to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor—still the only woman in American history to have received it.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831–1895)
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born in 1831 in Delaware, but in 1852 she moved to Massachusetts to work as a nurse, inspired by a kind aunt. She decided to take her training to the next level, and in 1864, she graduated from the New England Female Medical College, becoming the first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree—all of this in the midst of the Civil War! After the war ended, Crumpler moved to Virginia, a war-torn area she felt would be a “proper field for real missionary work” with ample opportunity to become familiar with the “diseases of women and children.” She worked tirelessly aiding the sick, and she cared in particular for freed slaves who would otherwise have not had access to medical care. In 1883, she published her Book of Medical Discourses, “making her one of the first people of color to publish in the [field of] medical literature,” as Caroline Kee has noted.
It is important to celebrate and acknowledge pioneering women in the medical field like Metrodora, Marie Guenet, Elizabeth Blackwell, Mary Edwards Walker, and Rebecca Lee Crumpler—especially at a time like this, during a pandemic, when we owe so much to the health practitioners who are keeping us safe.