Celebrating America's Women Physicians

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Setting Their Sights
Making Their Mark
Changing Medicine
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Setting Their Sights

As part of the wider movement for women's rights during the mid-1800s, women campaigned for admission to medical schools and the opportunity to learn and work alongside men in the professions. Such rights came slowly. Even after qualifying as physicians, women were often excluded from employment in medical schools, hospitals, clinics, and laboratories. To provide access to these opportunities, many among the first generation of women physicians established women's medical colleges or hospitals for women and children.

Persistence, ingenuity, and ability enabled women to advance into all areas of science and medicine. Courageously, they worked long and hard to succeed even where they were most unwelcome, such as in surgery and scientific research.

A medical class room full of women. Opening Doors

The first women to complete medical training and launch careers confronted daunting professional and social restrictions. To establish their rightful place as physicians and to expand opportunities for other women in medicine, they devised many strategies, establishing their own hospitals, schools, and professional societies. They excelled in their chosen fields of medical practice and scientific research-often while campaigning for political change and managing the administrative responsibilities and financial affairs of educational and medical institutions.

By succeeding in work considered "unsuitable" for women, these leaders overturned prevailing assumptions about the supposedly lesser intellectual abilities of women and the traditional responsibilities of wives and mothers.

Helen O. Dickens and Emily Mudd holding a brochure. From the Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives Challenging Racial Barriers

The first women of color who gained access to medical school confronted financial hardships, discrimination against women, and racism. For generations, their families had been enslaved or oppressed. They had been denied the means of making a living and access to decent medical care. Even to begin training, these women often had to work their way through medical school or seek funding from supporters of women's and minorities' rights.

Once they became doctors, these women played an important role in bringing better standards of care to their own communities and served as role models for other women.

Florence Sabin (seated, middle table) teaching anatomy, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, early 1900s. The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions Confronting Glass Ceilings

By the early 1900s, women had made impressive inroads into the medical profession as physicians, but few had been encouraged to pursue careers as medical researchers. To succeed as scientists, despite opposition from male colleagues at leading institutions, women physicians persisted in gaining access to mentors, laboratory facilities, and research grants to build their careers.

The achievements of these innovators often went unrewarded or unacknowledged for years. Yet these resourceful researchers carved paths for other women to follow and eventually gained recognition for their contributions to medical science.