8 Notable Women in Health Care History

Jillian Berndtson

| 3 min read

woman holding stethoscope
March is Women’s History Month, the perfect time to recognize the substantial contributions women have made across the many fields they work in. From education to medicine and everything in between, women have made strides in their respective industries and trades. It’s no secret that medicine and health care as we know it today is the result of centuries of research and evolution. Here are just eight of the wonderful women that have shaped health care into what it is today: • Florence Nightingale(1820-1910) worked as a nurse in England. She and her team of nurses worked to better the unsanitary hospital conditions in England, which reduced the mortality rate. Her actions sparked worldwide health care reform and in 1860, she established St. Thomas’ Hospital and Nightingale Training School for Nurses. • Elizabeth Blackwell(1821-1910) was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States and the first to publish a medical article. Her publication focused on the differences in how women would treat their patients compared to men. After earning her degree, Blackwell became an advocate for women in the medical field. •Clara Barton (1821-1912) was a nurse during the American Civil War. She cared for wounded soldiers and also did humanitarian work, provided clothes and personal belongings to soldiers in need. She was known as “Angel of the Battlefield” for helping overwhelmed surgeons at war. Her most notable contribution was the establishment of the American Red Cross in 1881, an organization that provides emergency assistance in the United States. • Dr. Gertrude Elion (1918-1999) was a biochemist credited with 45 patents in medicine. The drugs she created were designed to block viral infections, most notably leukemia, herpes and AIDS. She also studied kidney transplants and developed treatments for organ transplant rejection. Though she never earned a medical degree, she received 23 honorary degrees from various schools. • Betty Ford (1918-2011) grew up in Michigan and served as the First Lady of the United States from 1974 to 1977. During her time in the White House, she brought attention to women’s health, having had a mastectomy herself. At the time, talk of breast cancer was generally silenced. Betty Ford’s open attitude toward breast cancer led to a sharp increase in women getting screened. She also shed light on addiction as a disease by speaking openly about her own struggles. She established the Betty Ford Center for Addiction. • Dr. Jane Cooke Wright (1919-2013) studied oncology, testing anti-cancer agents and alternative techniques for administering chemotherapy. She was named Associate Dean at the New York Medical College. At the time, she was the highest ranking African American Woman at a nationally-recognized medical institution. • Patricia Goldman-Rakic (1937-2003) studied the human brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex as it relates to human memory. Before her studies, scientists believed this area of the brain was incapable of being studied. Her work allowed scientists to explore cognitive function and contributed to a deeper understanding of disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and schizophrenia among others. • Dr. Antonia Novello (1944-) is the first Surgeon General of the United States. She completed her pediatric internship and residency at the University of Michigan Medical Center. Since then she has had a particular focus on the health of children, women and minorities. Her most recent work has been centered on educating communities that lack adequate health care resources. You may also like:
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