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March is Women’s History Month, and women have made remarkable contributions to health care throughout history. Women were instrumental in developing cancer treatments and blood transfusions, mapping DNA, founding global relief organizations, charting the brain and infinitely more vital contributions to modern healthcare. Learn about a few pioneer women in the world of medicine below.
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross
Clara Barton was a nurse, health activist, teacher and humanitarian in the 19th century. PBS reports Barton courageously cared for soldiers on the front lines of the Civil War, earning the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield” for the way she nursed, comforted and cooked for the wounded. She founded the American Red Cross in 1881 at age 60 and led the organization for 23 years.
Elizabeth Blackwell, first female M.D.
Elizabeth Blackwell endured rejection, discrimination and exclusion to ultimately become the first American woman to receive a medical degree, according to the National Women's History Museum. Blackwell was inspired to study medicine after a dying friend told her the ordeal would have been more bearable had she been cared for by a female physician. Rejected by almost every medical school she applied to, she was finally accepted to Geneva College in rural New York as a practical joke.
In college, her professors excluded Blackwell from labs and forced her to sit separately from the men in lectures, and the local townspeople didn’t take a liking to her departure from traditional gender roles. Blackwell graduated in 1849 and later opened her medical college in New York City. Through her perseverance and determination, Blackwell paved the way for the thousands of women who now make up nearly 50 percent of medical school graduates, making medical research discoveries and advances and serving men and women across the world.
Gertrude Belle Elion, chemist and drug developer
Have you ever been given medication for the treatment of a cold sore or chickenpox? You have Gertrude Belle Elion to thank, explains the American Chemical Society. Personal tragedy inspired Elion to pursue a career in medicine. Her grandfather died from stomach cancer and her fiance from heart disease. After graduating top of her class with a degree in chemistry, she applied for financial assistance to graduate schools across the country in hopes of becoming a research scientist.
She was rejected by no less than 15 schools, and she even had trouble finding a job in chemistry because of her gender, ultimately volunteering as a dishwasher in a lab. Elion was eventually got a job and pursued a master’s degree at New York University where she was the only woman in her chemistry classes.
Elion went on to become a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and is responsible for developing the first major drug used to fight leukemia as well as dozens of other treatments, including drugs for to fight malaria, meningitis, septicemia, bacterial infections and the herpes virus.
Rosalind Franklin, scientist, DNA molecular structure
In 1962, three men won the Nobel Prize for modeling the structure of the DNA molecule., but decades later, many acknowledge a fourth individual — a woman — should have been included in that award, according to Live Science. Rosalind Franklin grew up in pre-World War II London and is remembered by her childhood friends and family as being outspoken, clever and the “best” in science and math.
Against the wishes of her father, Franklin became a scientist and studied at Cambridge. After graduation she worked in a lab in France, perfecting the science of X-ray chromatography, later returning to the U.K. to advance her career at King’s College. There she made progress studying DNA with a grad student, discovering crucial keys to DNA structure. She eventually left because of disagreements and disputes with male colleagues who excluded her, and she died at the age of 38 of ovarian cancer. Franklin’s work has now been acknowledged and honored as integral to the Nobel-prize winning discovery, with many facilities, scholarships and research grants named in her honor.
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, geneticist
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, a holder of a doctorate in physics, closely studied insulin, co-developed radio-immunoassay, a technique to measure minute quantities of biologically active substances. In 1977, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, becoming only the second woman to be awarded this prestigious honor.
Because of Yalow’s work, blood in blood banks can be screened for disease, fetuses can be checked for serious deformities, athletes can be tested for drug abuse, etc. Yalow was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1988.
Steward Healthcare applauds women everywhere for their contributions in science, technology and healthcare. We thank the thousands of strong, intelligent, caring and courageous women who make up the majority of our 40,0000 health care professionals in 39 community hospitals in the United States and Malta. For more information, visit https://steward.org.