From breaking gender and cultural barriers to developing a test to assess the health of newborns, American women played a vital role in healthcare, medicine and equity. Let’s get to know a few of the many history-making women.

Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, is believed to be the first woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree, graduating from New York’s Geneva Medical College in 1849. She was one of the founders of the New York Infirmary for Women, established in 1857 which served as both a medical facility and a place where women – usually barred from medical internships – could continue their physician education. Blackwell authored two important texts:  Medicine as a Profession for Women (1860) and Address on the Medical Education of Women (1864).

Susan La Flesche Picotte, MD, was the first Indigenous woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree, graduating in 1889 from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania – at the top of her class. She returned to her home state of Nebraska to set up a private practice serving a diverse patient population and later opened a hospital within the Omaha Reservation. A fierce advocate for Indigenous health, she went to Washington in 1906 to lobby Congress to place prohibitions on alcoholic beverages in reservations.

Elizabeth “Lee” Hazen and Rachel Brown pioneered antifungal antibiotics. In 1950, Hazen, a microbiologist, and Brown, a chemist, discovered scientist Nystatin, one of the most effective defenses against Candida and Aspergillus. The agent and the process for producing it were patented in 1952 and rights obtained by E.R. Squibb. Royalties from sales of the agent were donated to the Brown-Hazen Research Fund, which provided grants to life sciences researchers for the duration of the patent.

Virginia Apgar, MD, an anesthesiologist, was the first female full professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. In 1953, he created a set of standard criteria to assess a newborn’s wellbeing: the Apgar Score. Healthcare providers use the criteria to evaluate a baby’s appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration to quickly determine if the child needs special care. In 1972, Apgar authored Is My Baby All Right?, a parents’ guide to infant health.

Antonia Coello Novello, MD, is the first woman and first Hispanic U.S. Surgeon General, serving from 1990 to 1993. During her term, she helped launch the Healthy Children Ready to Learn Initiative and was a vocal supporter of ending underage drinking. Trained as a pediatric nephrologist, she left private practice to joined the Public Health Service in 1979 as a vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Beverly Malone, PhD, RN, FAAN, has broken ground multiple times. In 1999, she was appointed the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ deputy assistant secretary for health, the highest federal government position ever held by a nurse at the time. In 2001, she was named the first Black American general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, the largest nursing union and professional body in the world. She was the second Black American to lead the ANA and is now the chief executive officer of the National League for Nursing.

Many other women have advanced healthcare and medical education in the U.S. We invite you to explore and promote the female-identifying inventors and ground-breakers in your organization, location or field. 

About Margot Carmichael Lester

Margot Carmichael Lester is a North Carolina-based business and brand journalist who has covered healthcare and staffing for more than 20 years. She also writes about moviemaking for the International Cinematographers Guild, specializing in action cinema, and co-authored the award-winning teen writing book, Be a Better Writer. She earned her BA in journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is a rabid Tar Heel basketball fan.